Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme (England and Wales) Order 2017
Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme (Scotland) Order 2017
Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2017
Motions to Approve
That the draft Orders and Regulations laid before the House on 8 March be approved.
My Lords, I shall speak also to the Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme (England and Wales) Order 2017, the Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme (Scotland) Order 2017 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2017. The instruments will help enhance the operation of electoral registration across Great Britain. Noble Lords will be aware that individual electoral registration—IER—was successfully introduced in 2014 and for the first time ever enabled people in Great Britain to apply online to register to vote. Nearly 24 million people have applied to register under IER, 18 million of them online.
Applications to register to vote peak in the run-up to elections and during the autumn canvass, when each household in the country receives registration forms. Noble Lord will be aware that this process, and indeed registration overall, is costly for electoral registration officers—EROs. While the Cabinet Office currently provides direct financial assistance for registration linked to the introduction of IER, the total costs of the annual canvass are high, at some £65 million per year. The current process is inefficient, costly and burdensome for local authorities.
What is more, a large proportion of these costs relate to activities required by law that simply confirm that people are correctly registered. What is needed is a more effective and efficient system that targets resources on reaching out to underregistered groups to add new names to the register, rather than simply confirming names already there. The Cabinet Office is therefore working with EROs across Great Britain to pilot alternative approaches to the current paper-based, inflexible and prescriptive annual canvass. Three of today’s instruments will enable such pilots this year. The fourth instrument will enhance the operation of IER in Scotland to allow cost savings for EROs throughout the year.
I turn, first, to the annual canvass pilots for 2017. Three of these instruments establish pilot schemes under Sections 7 and 9 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. As noble Lords may already be aware, Section 9D(3) of the Act requires the annual canvass to be conducted in the manner prescribed in the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001 and the Representation of the People (Scotland) Regulations 2001. This process requires EROs to send an annual canvass form—the household enquiry form, or HEF as it is known—to every property in their area. The HEF asks residents to set out whether there have been any changes in the composition of the household since the previous year’s canvass, and it enables EROs to identify whether any residents should be removed from the register or be invited to make an application. Response rates to the HEF are significantly lower under IER, as it is no longer a registration tool, yet, where no response is received, EROs are required to issue up to two further forms and to carry out at least one visit to the property.
These three orders disapply those requirements for 23 participating EROs in areas of England, Wales and Scotland. Instead, the orders require EROs in the specified areas to attempt to make contact with a person at each residential address in the area for which they act at least once between the date the order comes into force and 2 February 2018. The manner in which they do so, however, and whether they take further steps where no information is received at a particular address will be at the EROs’ discretion. This will enable EROs to test new and innovative approaches to canvassing—including using data, such as council tax data, the local land and property gazetteer, and internal local authority databases—to determine whether chasing responses to ERO inquiries is necessary. These approaches have been developed closely with the Electoral Commission, which is supportive of the pilots. The commission will be reporting on the schemes and will provide a copy of its evaluation to Ministers and the EROs by 29 June 2018. The order ceases to have effect on 6 July 2018.
The fundamental objective of the annual canvass—namely, the maintenance of a complete and accurate register through regular data collection—is and will continue to be a government priority. However, consultation with EROs and local authorities over an extended period has indicated that the annual canvass in its current form is not a sustainable way to achieve that aim. Many EROs, who are on the front line of electoral registration activity, have told the Cabinet Office that the canvass procedure is time-consuming and expensive. Electors will receive up to three letters and a visit from their local ERO, even if they are already registered, solely for the purposes of information gathering.
Last year, for example, huge numbers of citizens registered to vote in the run-up to the EU referendum in June. This year, many may register to vote in local and devolved elections in May, and perhaps even for a by-election as well, yet, when the annual canvass takes place between July and December, they will receive fresh inquiries in the form of the HEF about their registration status. The reality is that household churn is around 12% per annum—thus the majority of the canvass activity is redundant. Over half of households do not respond to the initial HEF, meaning that EROs are required to chase them up with the further two forms and a visit, despite the fact that 88% of households will be listed as “no change” on the electoral register.
This tremendously bureaucratic process is frustrating for administrators. Having to follow steps prescribed in statute is stifling their capacity to innovate and adopt new approaches to canvassing. Through knowing their local area or having access to local authority data, EROs may well be aware of the registration status of households in their area. However, the current system does not allow them to draw on their own expertise or on other information held by the local authority. This is not an example of “smart working”, and it does not allow citizens to “tell us once” of changes to their registration.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that the recent referendum was conducted using one of the largest electoral registers ever. With the advent of online registration, it is becoming increasingly apparent that electoral events can drive registration to new heights and that the current system of canvassing around six months in advance of a poll, through an inefficient cycle of paper HEFs and household visits, may not be the best approach for the modern world.
It is important to note that the canvass itself is purely an information-gathering process. The pilots will not alter the requirements for the registration process and for invitation to register forms to be sent to individuals. Therefore, what is being proposed—the impetus for which has come from EROs themselves—is to enable local authorities to test alternative methods for conducting the annual canvass that have the potential to be more cost-effective while still securing the same or higher levels of information on changes to the register compared with the current annual canvass process.
Operations along these lines were successfully carried out in 2016. Specifically, during the 2016 annual canvass process, the Cabinet Office ran initial pilots in three areas of England—Birmingham, Ryedale and South Lakeland. In order to broaden the evidence base, however, further pilots, including in Wales and Scotland, are needed to inform a wider change to the annual canvass across Great Britain. Early results from the pilots last year have been very promising, with provisional figures indicating that the costs of the alternative canvasses were substantially lower than those of the legislated canvass due to the reduction in printing, paper, postage and staffing costs. Ryedale, for example, estimated that the new methodology it employed resulted in an 89% saving in staff time and costs. The Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission are currently analysing the full cost data of the whole process and intend to report initial results in May.
In addition to the pilot areas from last year, the areas selected to participate in 2017 are Barrow-in-Furness, Bath and North East Somerset, Blaenau Gwent, Camden, Coventry, Derbyshire Dales, Dumfries and Galloway, East Devon, Glasgow, Hounslow, Luton, Newcastle, Salford, South Holland, South Norfolk, South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse, Sunderland, Torfaen, Wakefield and Woking.
Although the initial results suggest that alternative approaches to the annual canvass can be at least as effective as the currently prescribed method, the Cabinet Office intends to ensure that applying this learning to local authorities across Great Britain, including Wales and Scotland, generates similar results. If successful, the pilots will demonstrate that the annual canvass does not need to be so prescriptive and that a number of alternative methods are just as effective and more cost-efficient, potentially saving at least £20 million from the cost of electoral registration each year.
The 2017 pilots will take place in local authority areas across England, Wales and Scotland. The areas were chosen using robust research methodology to ensure a spread of electoral register churn, population size, chosen pilot model and region. In each area, the EROs will be operating control groups and pilot groups so that the results of these approaches can be rigorously evaluated.
Four models of piloting activities will run with these EROs in the 2017 pilot scheme. Each model has been created based on proposals from EROs, and each participating ERO has chosen the model they wish to apply to their area based on their local knowledge and expertise. Each model reduces the number of paper communications sent to electors, using means such as telephone and email channels, and one model uses existing local data to determine where best to focus resources. Again, these ideas have all come from the experts on the front line and are designed to improve the citizen experience as well as ease administrative burdens on hard-pressed electoral teams. The elector will benefit from the local authority being able to redirect resources and target canvassing more effectively towards underregistered groups.
I will now give more detail on each pilot model in turn to offer some insight into the innovative approaches being taken to move us towards a more effective and targeted canvass process.
The first model, which is being piloted in areas such as Torfaen, Ryedale and Barrow-in-Furness, tests the use of a household notification letter, or HNL. Under this model, the ERO will send all households in the treatment group a HNL instead of a standard household enquiry form. The HNL lists the details of everyone registered to vote in that household and advises residents to take action only where the details held are no longer up to date. This model allows EROs to reduce the number of paper communications sent to electors and also reduces the number of expensive household visits required.
The second piloting model involves the use of email in areas including Hounslow and Woking. For this model, an electronic HEF will be sent to households by email, chased with a visit if necessary. Where no email is held, households receive a postal HEF followed by a visit. This model further tests the use of email communication between EROs and electors, following the uptake of email invitations to register in England and Wales. This also expects to reduce the number of overall communications with electors including, again, expensive household visits.
The third model uses a discernment step to identity different types of properties, in areas such as Glasgow and Birmingham, so that EROs can take the most appropriate approach. This discernment could involve local data matching using sources such as council tax, or assignment by ward based on the ERO’s expert knowledge. Depending on the assignment, some properties will receive a HNL, while others will be more actively canvassed where a change in household composition is suspected. Where possible, communication will be sent to these households by email before being chased with postal reminders and visits if necessary. This model allows EROs to use the existing data and knowledge they have of their areas to target resources better as well as use digital means to communicate with electors.
Finally, a fourth model tests the use of telephones in the canvass process. Areas participating in this model include Dumfries and Galloway as well as East Devon. Under this model, EROs will send initial postal HEFs but will then be able to chase non-responding households by telephone, rather than by additional canvass forms or household visits. Where no telephone number is held, households will receive two letters followed by a visit. This model allows EROs to test the use of telephone canvassing and should also reduce the number of household visits and postal communications.
The Government have consulted widely, including with the Electoral Commission, on the pilot proposals. The commission has been very supportive of these plans and has been involved from the early stages of their development. The Electoral Commission has also been consulted on these orders, on which it is content, following the Cabinet Office’s confirmation that Section 13 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 remains applicable to participating local authorities during the pilot scheme so that participating authorities are still expected to publish their registers by 1 December 2017, unless exceptional circumstances apply, such as a local election, where they are required to publish a revised register by 1 February next year.
Consultation has also taken place with bodies such as the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, and the Scottish Assessors Association. This is in addition to the work the Government have been doing with interested councils directly and who have helped shape the four pilot models. The Information Commissioner’s Office was also consulted during the development of these pilot orders and is content that they do not raise any new or significant data protection or privacy issues.
Equality impact assessments have been completed to ensure that underregistered groups, as well as those groups protected by virtue of the Equality Act 2010, will not be negatively impacted by these pilot schemes. Privacy impact assessments have also been completed to ensure that no new negative privacy impacts under the Data Protection Act 1998 will arise.
While the purpose of these pilot schemes is to give EROs the space to innovate and test alternative and more effective approaches in relation to the annual canvass, I stress that the integrity of the register will be maintained throughout the pilot schemes. EROs have a duty, under the Representation of the People Act 1983, to maintain their registers and nothing in these orders change that.
I turn now to the draft Representation of the People (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2017. These regulations take steps to allow Scottish EROs to benefit from the same cost optimisation measures as have been available to English and Welsh EROs since last year. This will be achieved by amending the registration application forms for Scotland to allow applicants to identify that they are the only person resident at the address aged 14 or over. It also provides discretion to EROs as to whether to canvass a property within 12 months of an indication of single occupancy. Allowing EROs to make this choice decreases the amount of resources spent processing applications and increases the efficiency and speed of the registration process.
Secondly, the regulations will modernise the system of registration by enabling Scottish EROs to send invitations to register and ITR reminders by electronic means if they wish to do so. This delivers a quicker and more efficient service to the elector, who expects electronic communication in this age, as well as enabling cost savings. The instrument will also allow an attester to an applicant’s identity to be registered in any local authority area in Scotland. At present, both the attester and the applicant must be registered in the same local authority. This provision will assist those applicants whose identity cannot be verified using the Department for Work and Pensions matching process, local data matching or by documentary evidence who have to provide an attestation to verify their identity. This change will result in more eligible applicants becoming registered to vote. In addition, the regulations make a minor amendment to correct an error in an existing regulation concerning the requirement to provide fresh signatures following rejection of a postal voting statement.
The measures were conceived to generate savings from the cost of the annual canvass process to counteract the fact that the introduction of IER has increased the cost and administrative burden on local authorities. These provisions also aim to reduce unnecessary ERO correspondence and contact. Preliminary estimations project that these regulations will reduce the overall cost of IER in Scotland by around £125,000 for the single-occupancy provision and around £400,000 for email ITRs per year. The Electoral Commission was consulted during the development of these measures and on the specifics of this order, and it is supportive of these regulations offering the same provisions to Scotland as already exist in England and Wales.
The Cabinet Office has worked very closely with Scottish Government officials to ensure that these measures can be in place for the 2017 annual canvass, and to ensure that Scottish EROs are able to participate in the aforementioned pilot schemes. The Minister for the Constitution and the Scottish Government’s Minister for Parliamentary Business agreed last year for these instruments to make provision in respect of both the parliamentary and local government registers in Scotland. This will be done before commencement of the relevant provisions of the Scotland Act 2016, which will devolve competence in relation to the local government register in Scotland. This was agreed in order to ensure that Scottish EROs could take advantage of these cost- optimisation measures in respect of both the parliamentary and local government registers this year, and that local authorities in Scotland are represented in the canvass pilot schemes.
With this in mind, the Government believe that the instruments allowing for annual canvass piloting schemes are a crucial step towards improving the annual canvass and wider registration process. I therefore commend them and hope noble Lords will also agree that the statutory instrument relating to cost-optimisation measures in Scotland helps move electors and electoral administrators towards an enhanced IER system for members of the public and for EROs as part of the continued successful implementation of IER across Great Britain. I beg to move.
My Lords, I was waiting to see whether anyone else would intervene. I will not detain the House very long. Will the Minister, either now or in writing—I promise I will not talk about Sheffield this afternoon—be kind enough to reflect on the juxtaposition of the existing Data Protection Act 1998 with the Digital Economy Bill in relation to data sharing and, crucially, with the general data protection regulation of 2016, which the Government indicated on 1 March they would be taking forward and putting on statute the necessary changes, prior to implementation, in May 2018?
I welcome very strongly the proposals for the pilot schemes. The discerning approach will be very important for getting to households that are difficult to reach, dealing with churn and ensuring that, particularly with the Glasgow and Birmingham proposition, there is a real understanding of the difficulty within inner cities. I am concerned that we do not get caught with what is otherwise a very sensible privacy change—a tightening of the regulations under the GDPR—taking into account, as the Minister indicated, that there will be a privacy impact assessment. Will he say a little more about that?
My Lords, before I comment specifically on the statutory instruments before the House, I will raise one or two questions relating to the general principle of ensuring that our electoral rolls are as accurate and complete as possible. I see the noble Lords, Lord Kennedy and Lord Rennard, in their seats. I think the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in particular is likely to touch on the subject if he speaks soon after me. I am concerned, as I think we all have been concerned and successive Governments have been concerned, about the fact that the register is accurate for certain groups—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, touched on that in part in his brief comments—but large groups of the population are regularly missed in one form or another.
I mentioned this to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, in advance, but I did not have a chance to mention it to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. Yesterday during Questions a Question came up relating to the 18 pilot projects identified around the country as a result of what one might describe as the Pickles review. I have been informed—I have not had the chance to check it, but I believe it to be correct—that in the case of both Burnley and Pendle the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors on those councils have voted against participating in the schemes, despite the fact that in each case they are among the 18 authorities identified for review. I will say only this: I regret it enormously if that is the case, because being innovative and trying to find ways to deal with fraud and underregistration are key to the processes of our elections, whether they be local or national.
Specifically on the statutory instruments, I broadly welcome them for the same reason that the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, identified. We should be innovative. Society is changing quite markedly. It is much more mobile than it was when the original legislation was introduced. We have very different forms of campaigning nowadays from those we had when I was somewhat younger. Therefore, we have to find ways of getting hold of potential voters in whichever way we can. I shall comment also on the Minister’s opening remarks, which concentrated rather too much for my comfort on savings. We were not given indications relating to the accuracy of the trials that have taken place so far. The Electoral Commission and other interested parties are conscious of not only the potential savings but the potential accuracy and gain achieved by any particular process within this trial.
I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Young, in his opening comments said that the results had been fairly positive from 2016. I recognise that it is a small step forward with a limited number of trials in local authorities. That is a good basis from which to work. Given where we are in the electoral cycle, and given that there are discussions with the local authorities that he identified, I shall ask for clarification just for confirmation that these projects will not interfere in any way with the local elections that are taking place. I assume that most of the preparatory work will take place later in the calendar year, but I would like that confirmation because a fair number of the local authorities to which he referred have elections—either in Scotland or Wales or in the county council elections this year.
I must admit that I am surprised and disappointed that the locations that he identified were the ones chosen. I think I understood him correctly to say that they would provide a range of local authorities to test the system. The Minister referred to model 1. Looking at the order to identify the local authorities involved, two of the authorities in model 1 are Welsh: Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen, which demographically are very similar. As far as I could see, there was no marked variation between those two local authorities: they are essentially valley mining communities. They touch on my other keen interest, rugby, in that they have produced many of the great Welsh rugby players and the great Welsh rugby teams—but they are very similar. If one was looking for Welsh authorities, I would have thought that one would not go for two Welsh valley authorities.
Equally, on the same list we have the authorities of South Holland, South Norfolk and Ryedale—which, again, are very similar in general make-up. We do not have one London borough in that group, but we have two metropolitan authorities. One could reasonably argue that the metropolitan authorities balance for a London authority, but it would have been better, rather than having two metropolitan authorities, Newcastle and Wakefield, if we had looked for slightly different mets across the country.
The second group, the email group, has a balanced combination of authorities: Bath, Coventry, the Derbyshire Dales, Hounslow—the first local authority in London—and Woking. The third category, described as the discernment model, has one London authority: Camden. I am sure that Camden will produce stellar results in its review. I declare a personal interest here: my niece is the Labour leader of that council, so I am sure that it will do its job very effectively indeed. Alongside that authority we have Salford, Sunderland and Birmingham—again, a combination of three mets, which I do not think shows a reasonable balance. That is combined with South Lakeland. There are no unitary authorities from any part of the country. That is not a particularly balanced grouping.
I have the same observation relating to the fourth grouping, the telephone model, where four local authorities are identified in England: East Devon, Luton, South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse. Three of those are district councils; most people would regard them as rural and fairly wealthy; and we have the rather odd position where South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse—I again declare an interest as, being Lord Hayward, of Cumnor, I originate from one of those local authorities—are neighbouring authorities in Oxfordshire. You will not get much variation of information by picking that as a group. Therefore, if it is possible at this stage, I ask whether some of those local authorities could be switched round. It may be too late, but I make those observations on the different groupings.
I shall ask one final question relating to the use of telephones. More and more people do not have a landline. They operate totally on mobiles. It was not clear from the Minister’s opening comments whether the tests would include solely landlines or a combination of landlines and mobiles, or whether the authorities have access in one form or another to mobile numbers—I would be surprised if they do not in most cases. Those should be used, in the right circumstances and with the right qualifications—the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, referred to data protection—because that will help the process.
I have made a few overall comments. I hope I have raised specific questions that can be dealt with either today or at a later stage in a written reply. But, overall, I broadly welcome the process as long as the objective is to achieve greater rates of registration, as well as the saving to local authorities in the process.
My Lords, the sentiments expressed in the Minister’s very thorough brief about modernisation, efficiency and cost saving are very worthy and have my support. But we should consider the issues very carefully because none of the sentiments outweigh the overarching principle of the requirement in a democracy to make sure that every citizen entitled to vote is enabled to do so by being on the electoral register.
During the passage of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, I was among those who fought to preserve the principle of the annual canvass, and we ensured then that it was retained. After much deliberation, the canvass was seen—as the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, has just said—as an essential part of ensuring both the completeness and the accuracy of the electoral register. But the principle was hotly contested during those debates. Certainly, there were some within the Government who simply argued that it should go as a cost-saving measure; while others of us argued that ensuring that people entitled to vote were registered to do so was part of the cost of democracy and essential to the principle of fair elections. We come now, four years later, to look again at the issue of the annual canvass and how it can best be operated.
People like me have accepted that there might be better and more cost-effective ways of canvassing to complete the register and ensure its accuracy. Those of us—and there are many of us in the House—with long experience of canvassing in elections know a lot, I suspect, about targeting canvass efforts. In some areas it may be worth knocking on doors several times, while in others it may perhaps be impractical to call upon households personally. During the discussions four years ago one Minister told me that he thought the annual canvass was now completely redundant. He had been taken out by his advisers to a gated community and shown how it was almost impossible to gain access to canvass. It was suggested to him that the principle of the annual canvass should therefore be dropped. But such gated communities represent less than 1% of all households in the UK. The vast majority of households are accessible, and canvassing them is often an essential part of the process of completing the electoral register.
What I think can be done, however, is to use more modern methods to try and register as many people as possible in advance of attempting to call personally on doorsteps. Concentrating canvassing efforts on particular households where there is a need to make personal contact, and perhaps on low-registration areas where, for example, there may be many homes in multiple occupation, may be a higher priority—but all of this is predicated on making every effort to get people registered in ways that do not require a personal visit. If we are to extend this principle and vary the methodology involved in the annual canvass, I would like to ask the Minister about a couple of issues relevant to registering more people in advance of the doorstep call.
First, as we have discussed in correspondence, there is the provision of national insurance numbers to 16 and 17 year-olds. The Minister has told me that Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs is willing, in principle, to supply to young people with their national insurance number information about how it can be used to register to vote. That clearly will save money and reduce the number of people who need to be called on personally. Since then, the Electoral Commission has said that there should be an automatic process of registration, so that when HMRC issues a national insurance number to a 16 or 17 year-old they are automatically included on the electoral register. That must fulfil the cost-saving principle that the Minister outlined in detail and would be a much better way of ensuring that 16 and 17 year-olds are included on the register. At that age they are already able to vote in Scottish Parliament elections, and it will ensure that they are on the register by the time they are 18 and can vote in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Secondly, I come again to the issue of student registration. It is particularly hard under the old-fashioned household canvass rules to canvass students in halls of residence and put them on the electoral register. The Explanatory Memorandum for the statutory instruments states:
“The purposes of these pilots are to gather evidence to establish whether alternative methods can be used to conduct the canvass that are just as efficient and more cost effective”.
We know that the traditional annual canvass method is not appropriate for students and we already know from pilots—which the Cabinet Office itself has referred to—that it is far cheaper and much more effective to offer students the opportunity to go on to the electoral register at the same time as they enrol for their course.
We know, for example from the Sheffield pilot that we debated, that students can be registered at a cost—according to Sheffield Council—of approximately 14p per student, compared to £5 per student using the traditional methodology which includes the annual canvass. In terms of completeness, which is a stated aim of government policy, the Sheffield model is registering students at a rate of about 76%, compared to institutions of a similar size registering students at a rate of only around 13%. The models may need to vary for different higher education students, but, if we are to change the principles of the annual canvass, we need to use all these methods to make sure that underregistered groups are more effectively represented on the electoral register.
I have a couple of other questions relating specifically to the paperwork accompanying the statutory instruments. Can the Minister tell us a little more about what he means by “at least one”? It says in the paperwork that there should be at least one call at the door or attempt to canvass the voter. But that, of course, does not mean very much. It may mean just one attempt or it might mean more. I hope the Minister will provide guidance. The policy background section of the Explanatory Memorandum says that,
“there will be a minimum requirement that they attempt to make contact with a person at each residential address in the area for which they act at least once during the pilot period”.
That should mean they will try to make contact as many times as is reasonably necessary and cost-effective to try to complete the registration process. It should not mean that the norm should be one attempt to call at a door. Those of us with experience of elections know that as politicians we often call at the same doors many times until we meet the voter we need to meet. This process should also involve making as many attempts as are reasonable to see the person who needs to be registered, bearing in mind the cost savings from registering many other people in other ways.
Finally, the privacy impact assessment, discussing the impact of canvass pilots on individuals, says that,
“individuals are already required by law to provide EROs with the information in order to populate the electoral register”.
That is a simple statement of fact but I often hear somewhat different statements coming from the ministerial Benches, implying that the electoral registration process is not compulsory. It is true that it is not compulsory to register to vote but we had great and controversial debates in 2013 to ensure that certain principles of compulsion—that someone can be fined if they do not complete the household inquiry form and be subject to civil penalties if they then do not comply with the ERO’s further requirement to provide their details—are made known. Since it is clear within this statement that there is an element of compulsion, I ask the Minister to ensure that in the future the Cabinet Office will make it plainer to people that there is a requirement to comply with the process and, in particular, that the forms sent out by the 450 different EROs across the country asking people to register make plain that they are compulsory. We fought in Parliament four years ago to maintain the principle, which was introduced many decades ago—the fines were increased substantially in the period when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister—that people should understand that it is a civil obligation to register to vote as well as being a benefit to themselves. That element of compulsion must properly be made known if we are to do things such as reduce the cost of conducting the annual canvass.
My Lords, first, I make my usual declaration that I am a councillor in the London Borough of Lewisham and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. The four statutory instruments we are debating today are ones that I accept, as far as they go. I broadly welcome the process outlined by the Minister. Certainly, the entitlement to vote and the accuracy and completeness of the register are the most important things we are debating here. That underpins all this. I have some wider comments and one or two questions for the Minister but generally I welcome the orders and regulations and I am very happy that we are exploring new methods of getting people registered to vote.
On matters concerning elections and electoral registration, it is always desirable to get agreement among the interested parties on the way forward. I accept that that is not always possible but it is a desirable aim nevertheless. Changes should be implemented carefully, should be thought about, should seek to improve voters’ engagement in the electoral process and should command wide confidence. In that sense, pilots are a useful tool to see how certain measures will play out in practice, followed by proper evaluation and informed policy decisions. Can the Minister tell the House why the decision was made to extend these pilots for another year? I cannot believe that the Government have made this decision in isolation. But it is not clear from the papers why they have done so.
There is no mention of the political parties being consulted on the regulations. Will the Minister confirm that neither the Electoral Commission nor the Cabinet Office team that meets the political parties on a regular basis have brought these regulations anywhere near them? Of course, the Parliamentary Parties Panel is a statutory panel set up under PPERA. If that is the case, does the Minister agree that that is regrettable and should be rectified quickly? The political parties use the electoral register for their campaigning, they understand the registration process, and they have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard in any discussions on these matters.
I refer the Minister to page 3 of the Explanatory Memorandum to the Electoral Registration Pilot Scheme (England and Wales) Order 2017; he mentioned it in his introduction. Referring to the annual canvass, paragraph 7.1 in the section headed “Policy background” says:
“In its current form under IER, it is proving to be an unsustainable cost burden for local authorities to administer”.
I thought that was an interesting comment. I must say, it is not the biggest issue that comes up when we discuss finance and budgets and unacceptable cost burdens at Lewisham Council. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, may have let the cat out of the bag by telling us that these issues were discussed in the coalition Government in 2013. Of course, members of that coalition wanted to bring forward these proposals then.
I had a look at what the Local Government Association was saying and I could not find any mention at all of the unacceptable cost burdens of the annual canvass—not a thing—in its campaigns, press releases or anything else. I then had a look at London Councils and again there was no mention in any of its campaigns or media releases about these unacceptable cost burdens and the problems being caused for local authorities. Both organisations are well known to Members of this House. They are expert at getting their views across to us when they have issues they want to raise with us. But I have had absolutely nothing—not a letter, not an email, not a text message, not a phone call—from these bodies that represent local government.
Of course, there are many issues that these two bodies are interested in: the housing crisis, the social care crisis, education funding, public health budgets, business rates, pavement parking, homelessness and the lack of funding for that, bus funding, and many other issues—the list goes on and on. Many of these issues are putting local authorities in a difficult situation and putting pressure on budgets, but the Government are not the slightest bit interested in dealing with them. I also had a look at SOLACE and the AEA. Again, they are silent on these issues and do not appear to be campaigning on them at the moment.
It really is a bit rich for the Government to hide behind the suggestion that there are all these concerns from elsewhere in local government. The Government do not have a good record here. They sped up IER, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. They reduced the transition period for IER by one year. They threw out the consensus on that point. They moved ahead with reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons by 50. They removed voters from the electoral roll, against the advice of the commission, and of course that helped them in their redistribution of parliamentary seats and limited the scope of electors to get involved in local inquiries. At the same time, we all know that they made a record number of appointments to your Lordships’ House. Their claims about cutting costs just do not hold water.
Democracy costs money. We should cherish it and pay for it. We need an efficient, well-run, properly resourced electoral registration service in every part of the United Kingdom. In comparison with other services, the costs involved are not huge and the Government should be seeing how they can use every avenue of the state to get and keep people registered to vote. They should be learning from other parts of the United Kingdom. How does the Electoral Management Board in Scotland work in getting people registered to vote, compared with what happens here in England and Wales?
Pilots are good to see how we can efficiently and expertly register people to vote. There is nothing presently in force that stops EROs making any innovation, and many EROs do an excellent job of innovating to get people registered to vote. We should be looking at the incentives to get people on the rolls. What are schools, colleges and universities doing? What can we learn from the schools issue in Northern Ireland? Many noble Lords from all sides of the House have raised that and so far the Government have not been interested at all in bringing it into play in England. We should look also at what we can learn from other parts of the world.
I worry that the real agenda is just to cut the need to send out a prepaid envelope and a form and to avoid knocking on the door, with very little else under that. I am happy that we have new procedures and new ideas. We have to be absolutely sure that we are not making it any harder to get people registered to vote. I am not confident that so far the Government have done that.
My noble friend Lord Blunkett raised some very important points. The noble Lord, Lord Hayward, spoke about the two local authorities. I do not know that case but if that is the situation, it is regrettable. All the councils that have been invited to be part of the pilot should be part of it when it takes place next year. He made a very important point about savings. I am happy to make savings but, again, the important point in all this is the accuracy and completeness of the register. That must be paramount for all of us. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made some important points about automatic registration. Again, young people and students are a very important group and we must make sure that we get them registered. I know that many councils and EROs have worked closely with universities and colleges. We need to ensure that that happens as well.
I am happy to agree the orders and regulations before us today, although I worry about the Government’s real intention behind these matters.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and for their broad welcome for the initiatives that are in the orders before the House.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, I am grateful for his welcome for what we are doing, but there were some uncharacteristically partisan comments in his speech. On the size of the House of Lords, I just say, as somebody who was Leader of the House of Commons at the time, that if his great party had supported the programme Motion on the House of Lords Reform Bill, the House of Lords would be a lot smaller than it is now. His party bears some responsibility for the failure to get the numbers down to a more manageable level. I will put that on one side because I know the noble Lord did not mean to stimulate an aggressive partisan debate on these non-controversial orders.
I will try to respond to the issues that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, raised the issue of privacy. Of course I confirm that the protection of personal data is important. As I think I said, the Cabinet Office carried out a privacy impact assessment which took into account privacy impact assessments commissioned from all the participating local authorities. The provisions before us do not have any significant further impact on an individual’s privacy than the current legislative requirements concerning registration. They simply support the EROs in carrying out their legal duty to take all the necessary steps to maintain registers of electors in their area. As I said, we have consulted the Information Commissioner’s Office on this order and it does not consider that the proposed measures raise any new or significant data protection or privacy issues. The noble Lord also raised some issues about the Digital Economy Bill and I would like to accept his generous offer to pursue those in writing.
My noble friend Lord Hayward commented on the selection of the areas for these pilots. As I said, the areas were chosen using robust research methodology to ensure a spread of electoral register churn, population size, chosen pilot model and region. He asked whether it was too late to amend the orders before the House. I think he knows the answer perfectly well—it is too late. He also asked about next year’s pilot of ID in polling stations. I entirely agree with him that it would be in the interests of those local authorities which the Electoral Commission has identified as being at risk to participate in those pilots. The list of pilots to be included in next year’s scheme has not been decided but I certainly take on board the issues that he raised. I will come back in a moment to some of the other issues he touched on.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned the issue of registering at the same time as one gets a national insurance number. That is a move towards automatic registration which so far the Government have resisted. We believe it is up to the individual to register. I am not absolutely certain that what he suggests would necessarily work because of other issues about eligibility; for example, somebody might already be registered. I am not sure whether the nationality issue might have been addressed. However, we are trying to nudge. The noble Lord referred to the correspondence that we are having at the moment which we are taking forward to encourage people to register at the same time as they have an interface with a government department.
On the issue of telephones, whether landline or mobile, it depends on what number the elector gave the local authority when they registered online or were otherwise in contact for the purposes of council tax, or what have you. The pilots do not have specific rules for whether a landline or a mobile is used.
On the question of compulsory or voluntary registration, the noble Lord accurately described the current system; namely, it is not an offence not to register. However if your name is included on a HEF and the ERO then contacts you, it is an offence not to reply. The forms are designed by the Electoral Commission and the EROs may issue a requirement to register and issue a civil penalty for non-response where they think that that is appropriate. However, I will pass on to the Electoral Commission the noble Lord’s suggestion about making the powers clearer.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that the annual canvass stays. I think I made that clear at the beginning. The fundamental objective of the annual canvass, namely the maintenance of a complete and accurate register through regular data collection, is and will continue to be a government priority. I hope I can set the noble Lord’s mind at rest on that point.
South Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse are included because they jointly run electoral and registration services. That is why they have been put together.
I was asked what action is being taken to ensure that the pilots do not negatively affect the completeness and accuracy of the pilot areas. The EROs will still be required to make contact with every household at least once and any deletion from the register still requires two sources of evidence.
I return to the question asked by my noble friend Lord Hayward. The EROs themselves chose the pilot models most appropriate to their areas. It is therefore likely that similar authorities will chose similar pilot models. There should be no impact on the local elections in that the annual canvass starts in July after this round of local elections and the register has to be completed by 1 December, so there should be no impact on the timing of next year’s local elections.
We are working through the details of the polling station pilot schemes, which I mentioned a moment ago. The number of pilots to be run will depend on the scope of what is to be tested and the number of local authorities that come forward with suitable applications. The evaluation of these canvass pilots will be due by 29 June next year.
There are a number of initiatives about encouraging underregistered groups which I will not go into today. Black and minority ethnic groups, those who move house frequently, young people and those with long-standing mental health conditions or disabilities are less likely to register to vote. The Government have a number of initiatives with organisations working with those groups to drive up registration.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, asked whether the panel had been consulted. Did he mean the parliamentary panel of Members of both Houses which liaises with the Electoral Commission?
No, I am sorry. I meant the political parties panel in PPERA which is drawn from officials.
I will make inquiries and deal with the important questions that the noble Lord has raised about the level of consultation, and of course he is entitled to a reply on that.
I think I have dealt with nearly all the issues that have been raised. If I have not, I will write. We have had direct advice from a range of those in local government—the chief executive of Trafford, the electoral registration officer for Grampian and others—about this initiative. I again thank noble Lords for the time they have spent scrutinising these instruments, which will enable EROs in England, Wales and Scotland to pilot innovative approaches to conducting the annual canvass and also allow EROs in Scotland to make use of email invitations to register and single occupancy provisions. I beg to move.
Before the noble Lord sits down, the point I was trying to get across is that I am very happy that we have pilots. There is no issue about that. However, when we make changes—and stopping the annual canvass, stopping people knocking on doors and stopping letters going out are very big changes—we cannot assume that everybody is e-enabled. Each change has to be carried out very carefully; otherwise we make mistakes, things go wrong and people lose their right to vote. That cannot be the case. The heart of this is that the Government must take a long period and absolute care when they pilot changes. The decision to reduce the time for confirmation was a mistake. If we had taken a longer time, we might not have needed these measures now. That is the point I am trying to make.
I am grateful to the noble Lord. As I said, we are not stopping the annual canvass. The annual canvass remains. I will just end on this. The initiative for this has come not so much from the Government as from the EROs. They take their responsibilities very seriously and want to have the maximum number of people registered. They still retain all the powers they have at the moment, as well as the powers they have in the pilots, to continue to knock on doors and send all the forms. I personally have confidence that the EROs will use the powers they have, and which we are giving them today, not just to maintain the current accuracy of the register: I think we will end up with a better register if we go ahead with these pilots and extend the lessons that we have learned.