Schedule 2 : Sharing and checking information etc
Moved by Lord Rennard
10: Schedule 2, page 17, line 15, at end insert-
"(1A) Provision under sub-paragraph (1) must authorise or require institutions providing secondary education (as defined by section 2A of the Education Act 1996), the Student Loans Company Limited, the Driver Vehicle Licensing Agency, tenancy deposit schemes (as defined by section 212 of the Housing Act 2004), and credit referencing agencies (as defined by section 145(8) of the Consumer Credit Act 1974), to disclose information to another person for the purpose of assisting a registration officer in Great Britain."
My Lords, Amendment 10 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Tyler. The Government have been trailing data sharing with the DWP database since orders were passed through this House last year. We very much welcome their aspiration to data match some two-thirds of eligible voters from the old household register on to the new individual register using this process. However, we worry that this process will not prove to be as robust or successful as everyone hopes it will be. Other databases are, in our view, needed to make a success of this project. We have talked many times at the various stages of this Bill about the need for the electoral register to be complete. I believe this amendment about the use of other databases will show whether it is really the intention of the Government to walk the walk on this issue, as opposed just to talk the talk on it.
It will be a matter of judgment as to which databases may be appropriate for automatic registration, as the DWP's will be, and which should only provoke invitations to register from electoral registration officers. What is clear is that to restrict ourselves to the DWP's database, in either endeavour, is missing a real opportunity to improve the completeness of the registers, even from their present positions. For all the talk there will be about the dangers of the new system, we have to recognise that the old system has proved quite unsatisfactory. We now know that the electoral register is complete up to only 82% of eligible voters, as opposed to the 92% quoted by Ministers very frequently a year ago. Whether we have the old or the new system, we need better and more comprehensive data matching and data mining in order to help overcome the difficulties of registering voters.
We believe in particular that the information held by the DVLA-a comprehensive database of drivers-could provide a rich source of information better and more diverse than that of the DWP. Its database of national insurance numbers is of course notoriously unreliable: there are 80 million national insurance numbers in a population of only 51 million. We know there are many people on the DWP database who will have real trouble voting, since they died a long time ago. It would be particularly worrying if we restricted data matching to the DWP database only, as the Government could give the impression that they were keen only to see one demographic group of voters registered and not so keen on seeing other demographic groups registered.
Pensioners are not generally underrepresented on the voting registers or in the votes on election day. It is other groups where there is a more significant problem. There is a danger of unintended consequences in proceeding only with the DWP records, because they deal disproportionately of course with retired people. It is known that they vote disproportionately, although not exclusively, more in favour of the Conservative Party than perhaps other social groups. I know that our coalition partners would not want to give the impression that they are particularly keen on assisting with the registration of voters that may aid their cause and not with the registration of voters in general, in accordance with healthy democratic principles.
It therefore seems very important that the Department for Transport allows use of the DVLA's database in the same way and with all the appropriate safeguards about personal data that the DWP applies. We are told by the Electoral Commission that the Department for Transport does not wish the DVLA database to be used in this way. However, the DWP has given permission for its database to be used in this way. My proposition is simple: that there should be consistency across government databases, using all of them to maximum effect, with the proper safeguards about personal data, in order to ensure that as many people as possible are registered.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am not in principle against what he is suggesting but, as someone who bears the scars on my back of false accusations when in government of an intention to mine data, match data and cross-match data, can he tell us when the Liberal party came to the conclusion that it was perfectly legitimate to mine and cross-match the data from DVLA, from pensions, from national insurance, which the noble Lord mentioned, and from transport? Once you have created this precedent there will be very good reasons for using it, presumably with data from HMRC and others, right across the spectrum so it is not something that should be entered upon lightly.
Indeed, I understand that and we would not do so lightly. We had significant differences over the national identity card scheme, which we were told would cost something like £300 million. What I am suggesting in terms of electoral registration would obviously cost far less. The essential principle, rather than the costings, is that this is a one-way process with data whereby we are trying to make sure that everybody who is entitled to vote is able to vote. The safeguards that would be in place would ensure that the only information made available is someone's name and address. If the database shows that they are there, they could then be invited to register if they are not on the register.
My Lords, we are in Committee but I think I am right in saying that the procedure is that until the noble Lord has moved the amendment, no others should intervene. Could we allow the noble Lord to move the amendment? Then we can have the normal Committee stage open discussion.
I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister. All that I am arguing in my contribution is that there should be consistency across government use of databases. We should use the DWP database to help some people, and other databases which may help many other people, get on the voting register and have their democratic entitlement. We know that students, for example, are also very under-represented on the current register and may be even more under-represented under IER. However, there is an easy way in which this could be addressed. If the Government had the will to pursue what they say is their objective of maximising voter registration, students and former students could easily be located through the Student Loans Company, invited to register and reminded of their legal responsibilities to do so.
Attainers are a particularly important group. Sixteen and 17 year-olds could be identified through schools. There is a precedent for doing this in Regulations 41 and 42 of the Representation of the People (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2008, under which the previous Government brought in a system whereby schools had electoral registration officers visiting pupils at the age of 16 or 17 as part of their civic lessons. At the conclusion of their lesson about voting systems and registration, forms were completed to register those 16 and 17-year-olds at school. However, so far there is no such provision to do so in Great Britain. There is also a particular difficulty with transient tenants in the private rented sector. They could be tracked down through tenancy deposit schemes and, again, invited to register and reminded of their obligations to do so.
These are all government databases and my argument is that the Government should be consistent in using them for data mining and data matching to try to make sure that we improve registration to improve the health of our democracy. There are also private databases and a huge wealth of information available through credit reference agencies-many of which are used at the moment by local authorities, including many Labour local authorities. The credit reference agencies use the electoral register as their own starting point, so some of these people are already registered. Those agencies also know of many more people with perhaps several forms of credit made available to them, more than one bank account legitimately registered and, perhaps, several credit cards used legitimately. Yet they know that those people, who exist, are not on the voting register even though they are clearly entitled to be on it. I believe that they should be invited to be on the register and told of the requirements.
At the moment, many local authorities are using exactly these data to try to check on the single person's council tax discount. They know from their data that there is often one person on the register yet several people are resident. Local authorities are using these reference agencies to write to the people they know within this household, pointing out that they know that those people are there and should be on the electoral register and that perhaps it is not appropriate for them to claim a single person's council tax discount. Local authorities have no difficulty in doing this. I think there is a great deal to be said for using more effectively the data of the credit reference agencies. I know that the Government have been holding discussions with them. However, there is as yet no commitment from the Government to use either these other public databases to which I have referred or the private ones.
I turn briefly to Amendments 11 and 15 to 20. I would simply say that they appear to be also on the Marshalled List for the purpose of probing these sorts of issues, so I will not comment further on them from our Benches. However, we believe that the Government must look closely at all these areas and give some commitments before Report so that we can be sure that the final regulations on data sharing are far more ambitious than they are at present and that they are seen to be fair and in the interests of promoting our democracy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am sorry if I have breached the long-standing conventions of the House. I intervened at what I thought was the appropriate point but in terms of process, I should obviously be commenting now. I had not intended to comment when I came in to listen to the discussions but the precedent being suggested by the noble Lord has huge implications and significance. It ought to be regarded and scrutinised with some care before we proceed.
I do not for a moment doubt the noble Lord's intention, which is to maximise the number of people on the voting register in order to enhance democracy, although perhaps I might express the wish that some of the comments made during earlier discussions had been listened to. It was predictable that we would end up with a shortfall on the electoral register and an anticipated greater shortfall. I think that lies behind the measures that the noble Lord has raised.
Let me make this point. If, however good the ends, we adopt the means of proliferating the use of data mining and data matching, that would be of considerable significance. If we are suggesting that we data mine and data match records from HMRC, the DVLA, the DWP-that has already been agreed-the Student Loans Company and credit reference agencies, that is a suggestion of huge import and ought to be scrutinised for its possible consequences.
It is, with great respect to the noble Lord who spoke, a complete red herring to compare this with identity cards. I say that for two reasons. First, they were voluntary and not all of what he suggested would be voluntary in so far as the person whose information is being mined would volunteer-although in some cases he suggested that they be contacted with a view to volunteering. Nevertheless, the ID cards were voluntary. Secondly, and more importantly, part of the reason for them was the spread of databases and the anticipation that data matching and data mining would become the norm in a cyberspace-dominated environment. Biometric protection was therefore enshrined in the ID card. In short, anticipating the use over the coming decade of greater dependence on an individual's identity marked in a data bank and the possible loss of that identity or of that data bank by a government department, no one could have used that to gain access to any of the material in it-including bank accounts and so on-unless they had the fingerprints and the iris of the person whose bank account details were taken. In other words, it was a completely separate intention: to protect people should someone wish to use their identity if a databank was lost. It did not presuppose the Government going down this road of using records, which are exclusive to one purpose, for the purposes of data mining and data matching for another purpose, however well intentioned that might be.
I do not for a moment doubt that the intentions of the noble Lord are benevolent, benign, progressive and democratic, but the process of getting there, if it includes such widespread data matching and data mining as he has suggested, has profound implications and should therefore be subject to profound scrutiny in terms of the principle before this House.
My Lords, I, too, share some reservations on this matter. I was glad to see my noble friend Lord Rennard describe these as probing amendments, so, fortunately, they are not part of the coalition agreement. I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Reid, that one wants to improve the methods of registration, particularly as regards students. I am always amazed that students are relatively lowly represented in political registration. That might change because, now that they have to pay for so much of their education, their association with citizenship is made much more vivid to them at an early age. I suspect that that will be reflected in their registration in the years to come.
My concern about this proposal is that it seeks to enact that information should be provided from a series of databases, including the Student Loans Company and further education and secondary education institutions-I presume that sixth-form colleges and FE colleges would be the principal area. Those institutions would be required,
"to disclose information to another person"- not to a registration authority but to another person. "Another person", I suppose, could be an election agent. They could be an election agent of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or, presumably, the BNP-anybody could have the information. I would not be very keen on passing on some of the information to such people.
The provision would be a giant step towards a more prying society which I would be reluctant to go along with. I share some of the more general points of principle set out by the noble Lord, Lord Reid. Any data swapping has to be very carefully controlled for specific purposes. I am quite sure that the Liberal Democrats would condemn private companies getting into the business of data swapping in order to determine the patterns of consumer spending, for example. Many companies could justify that in the way the noble Lord seems to justify it for electoral purposes.
A method more suitable to our constitution would be the one cited by the noble Lord in the case of Northern Ireland. I see nothing wrong with registration officers of local authorities speaking in secondary schools and explaining to students the importance of electoral registration. That is a proper thing. If action were taken, as under some of the Labour amendments here, directly by the registration authority itself, rather than our seeking to tap into other things, it would be the right way to proceed. The action could be made much more effective if that procedure, which is the more constitutional practice in our country, was preserved, rather than our seeking a fundamental change whereby information of this sort, collected for one purpose, is made available for a variety of other purposes. That is a very big step which we should take most reluctantly.
My Lords, we have just heard from two very distinguished senior members of former Administrations. I find their cynicism about the way in which the public service operates rather discouraging. I am not suggesting that every word of our amendments may be precise, but I want to put it absolutely clearly on the table: nobody is forcing anybody to do anything. The purpose of the exercise is to make sure that the process of compiling the very building block, the foundation stone, of our democracy-the electoral register, which is important, as the noble Baroness said earlier, not just for voting purposes but for jury service and other purposes-is as well informed as it can be from public sources. As my noble friend said, the amendment does not propose that the electoral registration process should give back information in the opposite direction; it is one way. It has been very clear from successive Administrations and Ministers that it is for that purpose alone and not to provide information in the opposite direction.
I ask my noble friend Lord Baker to read very carefully how our amendment is worded. It does not suggest that the information could be given to any other person; it says very specifically,
"to disclose information to another person for the purpose of assisting a registration officer in Great Britain".
In other words, it has to be for that purpose and that purpose alone. It may be that the wording can be tightened up still further by government amendment between now and Report, but I make it absolutely clear to my noble friend that not any other person could benefit from this data mining.
With great respect, that is what the amendment says. It does not say a registration officer or a local authority employee; it says "another person". "Another person" in English law means anybody who says, "I'm actually going to seek this information in order to register more students. That is what I'm doing it for. I'm doing it for a public purpose. The fact that I am an election agent for my party, forget it. Forget that I am a registered Liberal"-that may be too difficult to forget, but-"Forget whatever I am". That is what the amendment says.
My Lords, if the Government feel that the amendment is inadequate in that respect, and my noble friend has made his point eloquently, obviously they can adjust the wording at a later stage. However, the amendment is here for the very specific purpose of assisting a registration officer in Great Britain. In other words, I would take that to be somebody who was within their organisation. If my noble friend has better wording, that is fine, but the point that I have to make is simply this: we already have the precedent, which has existed for a very considerable time, of using data that are already available to Government for this purpose. We are seeking to make sure that that is as full as possible. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Reid, will understand that the great majority of DWP data, cited by my noble friend Lord Rennard, will relate to people who are already going to register, in particular elderly people. What we are concerned about is mobile young people, a concern which has been evident also in contributions from the opposition Front Bench today. One of the ways to get to them is clearly through the student loan data and those who register for provisional licences.
I make it clear to the noble Lord, as I did previously, that I do not approach this proposal with cynicism, and I certainly did not suggest that I was in any way suspicious of either his motives or those of the noble Lord who moved the amendment. Indeed, it is courageous that representatives of Liberal Democrats want to put more students on the electoral register. That illustrates that they are not doing it entirely for their own benefit. What I am saying, however, is that you should not take a step down this road, which is to bring together data mining and data matching across government departments, unless you recognise the profundity of it.
Does the noble Lord accept that there will be increasing pressure, in times of austerity, for the government departments that he mentioned to move to the cloud, rather than retain their own databank and their own hardware? There will be great pressure-I see that the noble Lord agrees with me. Does he understand that many of the cloud servers have a business model that is dependent on mining the data that pass through their server in order to get to the databank? Therefore, you should not aggregate these data in such a way unless you recognise that the people in the private sector offering you the service of the cloud will mine those data. Maybe the noble Lord has already considered this but I am trying to make sure that we do not take such a step-not because I am cynical or doubt his motives but because real, profound questions arise out of it.
The noble Lord has been generous enough to say that he does not in any way question the integrity or approach of my noble friend or me. I do the same for him. I very much appreciate and endorse what he said. In the fast-moving world that we are talking about, these are proper concerns. The whole issue of who would operate the identity cards to which he and his Administration were committed raised precisely those questions, too. I think he would now accept that.
All we are saying here-I look forward to what the noble Baroness will say-is that, having already committed to the use of the DWP data, it is only reasonable to examine other databases that may be balanced in a different way demographically and politically. Maybe the terms in which our amendment is written need to be more carefully considered. That is fine; it is what a Committee stage in your Lordships' House is all about. I entirely understand the concerns that the noble Lord expressed but we have to be very careful. If we went right down the road of being risk-averse on these issues, we would do no data matching or mining at all and the register would become even more inadequate than it is already. That is a very serious proposition.
I do not know if the noble Lord was in the House earlier, but we had to identify that the status quo now is totally unacceptable. We have dropped back to the low 80s in terms of the completeness of the register. We are not where we were 10 years ago. I think it is agreed on all sides of the House that we have to look at every possible way to improve the integrity of the register both in completeness and accuracy. That is the purpose of our amendments.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, for the little education he gave me in an earlier group about the precise wording of Amendment 24. I am very grateful for that. I also thank him for moving this amendment. I speak to very similar ones tabled by my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and me. All these amendments seek to achieve essentially one thing: that those who hold, for quite proper and official reasons, the names and addresses of our citizens should make them available to election officers who then must write to those citizens, encouraging them to register.
I say to my noble friend Lord Reid and the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, that we are in a position where the Government want to move very fast from one system of registration to another. I hope they will both remain for the next group of amendments, which are about another device to ensure a full register-an annual canvass. That is a different group of amendments. Without these sorts of activities, we risk after the general election of 2015 suddenly moving on to a half register. Unless we take these sorts of steps, we will not have contacted a large swathe of people who absolutely have the right to vote and, I would argue, therefore have the right to be told that they have the right to vote and what they should do about it. Whether it is, as suggested by the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Tyler, the Student Loans Company, DVLA and tenancy deposits schemes, or, as we suggest, pension benefits agencies, the Passport Office, education establishments and landlords, they should all provide quite willingly information to the relevant election officers, who would then be under an obligation to write to those not on the register encouraging them to sign up.
One of the reasons for this is that we know from research-I think done by the Electoral Commission-that many of those not on the register believe that they are. That may even be the Minister's own research. Forgive me for not getting the source quite right. We know that a large number-I think it is 45%-of people not on the register think that they are. There will be many of us who have done the political work on polling day of taking people round only to find that they are not on the list. There may be a number of reasons for that. One is the assumption that it just happens. Maybe they have lots of other dealings with the state: they may have applied for and been issued with a passport or driving licence, get a pension or a benefit, pay their council tax or visit their local hospital or GP. That gives them the feeling that they are part of society and a community, and are a citizen. A number of them probably assume that, as part and parcel of that, they are also on lists held by the Government so do not need to separately sign up to register to vote. We are coming in with a new system-in quite a hurry-so it is important to make clear that these other lists also held by the Government or government-authorised agencies do not of themselves give them the right to vote.
It is also important that the Bill should require EROs to let all people know of the other important uses made of the register. The Minister mentioned credit checks earlier in Committee and there is certainly also mortgage eligibility. When those of us of a certain age want our freedom passes, the first thing our local authority will do is see whether we are on the electoral register. There are many advantages to being on it.
Until my noble friend Lord Reid and the noble Lord, Lord Baker, spoke, I thought that it would seem obvious to most people that EROs would look to the sources of data that exist elsewhere to find those missing from the existing registers-or the new ones as individual registration comes up-and write to them. It seems that we should not just leave it to EROs to take that initiative, but write in the Bill that such data should be shared, and shared in a timely manner so that those of our fellow citizens not already on the register will receive a personalised invitation to register for what is their right-the ability to vote.
My Lords, before I address the amendments directly, I take up some of the broader issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Reid, which were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, in our first Committee session before dinner. They are extremely wide issues and I agree that they are important. It was for that precise reason that I went to be briefed by the head of the Government Digital Service last week.
As the noble Lord, Lord Reid, pointed out, as we move towards cloud computing, the questions of where data are stored, to what uses they are put and how far they are shared become a very delicate and important area. I also flag up that the question of what is a public database and what is a private one becomes a little more difficult than it is now. There is a whole set of issues there that we need to return to in other contexts because this has the potential to transform the way in which society, the economy and government work as a whole. I was assured that the protocols that now govern what is called identity verification-the very limited use of data sharing to ask, "Is this person real?"-are strong and, as used by the credit agencies and others, provide firewalls which prevent too much information being shared.
Some of us might differ on how far we would be happy for the DWP, HMRC and the National Health Service to share information on what people claim to be earning, claiming or whatever; those questions will also come into that debate. I strongly agree that this is an extremely important long-term issue. However, if I understand it correctly-and I am at the absolute outer limits of my knowledge of computers at this point-I am told that one does not need to amass new databases. That is the difference between what is now beginning to happen and the old ID debate. One can put different datasets in touch with each other for limited purposes to enable one to discover whether X is really X and whether there is a Y. I thank the noble Lord for his intervention; these are very important long-term issues.
The Government believe that maximising electoral registration and voting is not purely the function and responsibility of the Government. It is the function of political parties; it is the function of all sorts of voluntary organisations. We all know about Operation Black Vote and Bite the Ballot. Noble Lords may be interested that one person last week suggested to me that if Tesco was willing to offer a voucher to everyone who signed up to the electoral register at the age of 18, that would increase the number of 18 year-olds signing up. For myself, I would prefer the Co-op to do it. Perhaps we should consider the extent to which such incentives are, sadly, in our modern world, necessary.
The Government are sympathetic to the spirit of the amendments, but wish to stress that we are already working in this area. We want to retain a degree of flexibility, and a lot of pilots are under way. In last year's pilots, we matched databases from not only DWP but HMRC, the Royal Mail, the address reallocation service, the Department for Education, HEFCE-the Higher Education Funding Council for England-the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Transport, the Student Loans Company, the Ministry of Defence for service voters and the Improvement Service company. The noble Lords, Lord Reid and Lord Martin, will understand about that company a little better than I do, because it holds data on behalf of local authorities in Scotland.
Perhaps my noble friend could address the particular problems found when the Cabinet Office funded additional research by the Electoral Commission about the completeness and accuracy of the register. As the noble Baroness said earlier, a high proportion, 44%, of those not on the register in April 2011 incorrectly believed that they were. Even more significantly, only 14% of those who moved between the 2010 canvass and those who appeared on the register in April 2011 were there. It is often the move that is the problem. That is why some of the data-matching suggestions made, to which my noble friend has just referred, were particularly addressed to those people. DWP does not particularly help with those; DVLA, Royal Mail and all that seem to be more relevant.
I entirely take the noble Lord's point, and add that an information campaign is clearly an important part of the transition to get to those who think that they might be on the register but may not. I would be entirely happy for noble Lords to press us further on the question of attainers, education in schools and civic education, which must be part of the transition process.
We resist the exact terminology in the amendments, and ask for more flexibility on the terms that we are looking at all these areas. We do not want to limit such schemes to the organisations named; we are experimenting with the range of datasets that can be helpful in this regard.
As we stated in our response to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee:
"The Government feels that the categories of persons should not be prescribed in primary legislation in this regard- because-
"the Government does not intend to introduce an amendment to restrict the categories of persons that may be authorised or required to provide information, but will listen carefully to the views of the House on this issue during Parliamentary debate".
The Government will reflect carefully on all those points and make clearer our intention on Report. So we are considering the precise detail of the alternative verification procedure beyond the immediate, primary identifiers and will consider a range of options to provide an accessible but secure approach.
Amendment 11 would require local authorities to share their data with electoral registration officers. That already takes place. Electoral administrators are part of local authorities and have for some time accessed relevant other local authority databases for the purposes of checking names and addresses together. The Bill would allow for such data sharing if it were decided that it was necessary and valuable in addition to that which already takes place. The next phase of government data-matching pilots will look at which datasets are most useful for electoral registration officers to carry out their duties. Some of the pilots will target students; some will target recent home-movers, which the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, flagged up as particularly important; others will explore how sharing data between two-tier local authorities, in those parts of the country where they exist, may assist them further.
However, on local authority data, I repeat that registration officers are already authorised to inspect records held by the authority that appointed them and are required to inspect records where they are permitted to do so both under the 1983 Act and the Representation of the People Act 2001.
On Amendment 15 and the whole question of students, we are already working with the National Union of Students, which represents students, and organisations with which students interact, such as the Student Loan Company and universities, to establish ways in which the registration process and the transition for those groups can be as simple and accessible as possible, building on the changes that we are enabling to the registration system, which will make registering to vote more convenient for all. Again, that work is under way; we are discussing and consulting with the other relevant public and private stakeholders.
Similarly, as for sheltered accommodation, which is the subject of Amendment 16, registration officers already have the power to require information from an individual to maintain their election register. That would include requiring managers of sheltered accommodation to provide the names of residents. Once registration officers are aware of that information, Clause 5 would require them to write to each individual who was not already registered at that address to invite them to register to vote. Amending the legislation is therefore unnecessary to empower registration officers to obtain information about individuals in sheltered accommodation or to require a registration officer to invite them to register.
As noble Lords will gather, the Cabinet Office is already actively engaged in a programme of work with groups which represent students, helping to provide alternative channels of registration, looking at the elderly in sheltered accommodation and how we could signpost people towards registration as they come into contact with other government agencies.
Amendment 17 addresses the question of private landlords. The real question here is whether a requirement on private landlords adds sufficiently to the toolkit of electoral registration officers to be worth the additional burden being placed on private landlords. That, again, is something that we are investigating further but our current view is that the marginal benefits of that measure over, to take just one example, the canvassable properties in the area do not justify imposing that additional burden.
Amendment 18 talks about the local authority providing additional information on council tax and other documents. Again, the Cabinet Office is testing out where it is most valuable and useful to provide additional information and, as the behavioural unit puts it, to prompt people to consider more actively ensuring that they are registered to vote. There are some questions about the complexity of the council tax document. I am not entirely sure that I read the whole of my council tax documents either in Bradford or in Wandsworth last year, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, read his in great detail from cover to cover. We are therefore not entirely sure that this is the best document to use for these purposes.
Amendment 19 requires local authorities to invite individuals to register to vote when they first register and begin paying council tax. This idea has a certain amount of utility and there is certainly no reason why local councils should not do that on the initial council tax form, but of course this would capture only the bill payer. There is a need for additional mechanisms to be in place to capture other people living inside the same property.
On Amendment 20, on the whole question of awareness-raising in other, wider government services and other transactions, we are looking with organisations from the public, voluntary and private sectors-I emphasise that it is not just in government agencies-to see where we can identify a potential benefit to introducing, for example, some form of prompting or signposting during the course of a transaction. We will test the different options to establish the extent to which they will assist the citizen.
On Amendment 24, to provide the explanation of the other uses of the register, opinions might differ on whether that was a plus or a minus. There have been one or two suggestions that there are those who wish not to be on the register so that they avoid jury service; it is not one of the most popular aspects of civic duty. That is another issue that we should perhaps explore further.
To sum up after this very large discussion of different ways of using and accessing databases and encouraging people to register, this is very much what we as a Government are already engaged in. We are happy to brief people further on what we are doing, how the data-matching pilots are going and how the information campaigns will be planned. We hope that on that basis the noble Baroness and the noble Lord will be willing to withdraw their amendment at this stage, and we will be happy to have further discussions on how we go forward to ensure that our shared aim, which is to maximise the number of people who register under individual electoral registration, will be achieved to the satisfaction of all.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of what the Government are doing and his confirmation that he is still willing to talk and listen about what we can do to ensure that the Government walk the walk to emphasise maximum voter registration. In his discussions with all parties who are concerned about this issue, I ask him to keep emphasising that while people talk about "data sharing", imagining that these are a lot of data on someone, we are simply talking about name and address-nothing else. In his discussions with people on this issue, he should emphasise that it is simply a matter of names and addresses so that we contact people to ensure that they are aware of their right, and their obligation, to register to vote so that we have a healthy democracy. People are concerned about access to data, but these data are names and addresses. In this debate some people seem to be unaware that if you wish to get details of someone's name and address in any area, you walk into a local library where a "database" called the electoral register is freely available, and you look at the names and addresses on the register. So the principle at the moment in this country is that the names-
If the noble Lord will forgive me, I am about to say that I will not press the amendment to a vote but I ask the Minister to consider further the remarks that we have all made during this debate. I welcome his open-mindedness on these issues, particularly with regard to 16 and 17 year-old attainers, and I am sure that he could alleviate the fears raised by a number of noble Lords in this debate by emphasising that the issue is simply a one-way movement of information about name and address, which should not be a severe threat to people's civil liberties. On that basis, with the leave of the House, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
Amendment 11 not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4 : Annual canvass
Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
12: Clause 4, page 3, line 39, leave out from "canvass" to end and insert-
"( ) The annual canvass must be held during the month of October every year in relation to the area for which the officer acts."
My Lords, this is perhaps the most important of the amendments that we will discuss today. This group of amendments has basically a twofold purpose. One is to maintain the annual canvass. The annual canvass is a critical tool, not only in compiling the register but as the only way of judging whether the other systems, which we welcome, and all the other work that is taking place on getting information from a variety of data sources are actually working. Without the annual canvass, there will simply be no check on the completeness of the register.
I have discussed this with a number of people who have more current experience in this area than I do, and they are adamant that the old fashioned canvass remains a crucial tool in locating citizens domiciled in Great Britain. Simply put, as has been said for other reasons, houses do not move. Ensuring that their eligible residents are on the list is best done via the canvass-really, nothing else competes.
We will press the Government hard on this, so our other proposals in this group to make it harder to abolish the canvass and to ensure that this could happen only with the super-affirmative procedure would, we hope, not actually be needed. Certainly I think it would be unacceptable to this House for an elected politician in government to take the decision to dispense with this crucial democratic tool. Our amendments, should any such proposal to abolish be considered, would ensure that the Electoral Commission's report on this came before Parliament, not just to the Minister, and that any similar report published on piloting proposed changes to the annual canvass also came here, with time for debate on those, and that any proposals to change the canvass were made only with Electoral Commission approval. The Electoral Commission was quite rightly set up to take many of these decisions about the running of elections out of the hands of those with a vested interest in the outcome; in other words, elected politicians. It is therefore right that any proposals to change the way the register is compiled, for example, should have the Electoral Commission's public nod of approval so that everyone can see that fair play in the interests of voters and democracy is taking place. I doubt that anyone will argue with that.
There are other proposals in this group where I doubt the Minister will raise any objection, particularly that the local registration officers should ensure that they have addressed every residential property with which they have contact, whether for council tax or anything else, as well as those in the relevant gazetteer.
There is one further word in these amendments to which I would draw the Committee's attention: October. It is no good having a January canvass because by the time the register is complete it is almost too late for all the systems to download all that information. It perhaps sounds an easy job but, because it is done locally, the computer formats used by local authorities are not quite the same. I have looked them up. Formats include three types of Strand format, a Pickwick format, a Pickwick variant, CSV files, Xpress formats and page image formats. If all those come in, it takes a lot of time. If the annual canvass takes place too late, there is simply not time to do all that data cleansing between these different computer programs, on which I do not profess to be an expert.
The Government said that they currently have no plans to remove the power to abolish the annual canvass. I wondered about the word "currently". I hope it means that the Minister will listen to us about the need for an annual canvass and remove from the Bill that ability to abolish it. Only a few minutes ago, he said that instead of addressing landlords, it was much better to have a canvass of all properties-I think I wrote down his words correctly. Amen to that. A canvass of all properties is an essential tool for making sure we have caught everybody, and the idea that it could be abolished by a Minister without Parliament having a say is one that we could not go along with. I beg to move.
My Lords, the annual canvass is an established part of our electoral arrangements and, on the face of it, there cannot be a more effective way of finding people living in their homes than to go knocking on their doors. I am therefore instinctively sceptical about the prospect of abolishing this annual exercise. Like so much of the transition to individual electoral registration, the possibility of ceasing the annual canvass is very much contingent on the success of other parts of the package.
If there is a comprehensive process of data matching and data mining, of the sort we discussed in the previous group of amendments, and electoral registration officers get a serious suite of ways to discover that someone has moved into or out of a local address, the Government's argument that the canvass may at some time in future become redundant starts to look more realistic. However, there should always be a duty on returning officers to visit a property where they believe an elector is based and to revisit and revisit again, if necessary, to find them in. We know that just sending letters is not enough, and to that extent Amendment 14 raises a particularly important point about what returning officers have to do. We will come back to look at that again in the context of a duty to take all necessary steps to establish a complete and accurate register when we get to Amendment 39 on Wednesday.
Turning briefly to the specific provisions in some of the amendments in this group, I would make the following observations. It does not appear, on the face of it, that there is a good reason for an annual canvass always to take place in October. Indeed, in many ways, it would be easier and more sensible to undertake such work in the spring, when evenings are lighter and days are longer. The tradition of the October canvass goes back to when
Like some of the earlier Labour amendments, Amendment 37 seeks to turn the Electoral Commission from a body that reports and gives advice to Parliament to one that makes decisions. We are not therefore inclined to support this amendment, which would mean that the commission had to agree every pilot which might take place. In general, like the previous Government, I am in favour of piloting and I do not think that it should be subject to the veto of an advisory body. Pilots of this nature generally should be welcomed.
No doubt in his concluding remarks, the Minister will make reference to Clause 7, which was added on Report in the Commons specifically to make sure that the Electoral Commission had a strong role. The role given to the Electoral Commission in the Bill appears to be the one that it asked for in its briefing at the time; namely, to make clear that the Electoral Commission must be consulted and its response made available to Parliament before any order is made to reinstate the annual canvass. We do not think that it is right to alter that very logical and consistent position.
Amendments 31 and 38 perhaps provide a neat reassurance. Looking at them, they probably provide a middle way between having this provision and not having it, in that the use of a super-affirmative procedure to remove the annual canvass in future would by definition ensure that such decision underwent thorough scrutiny. We would very much welcome that.
My Lords, I am very supportive of continuing the annual canvass because it is crucial. Anyone who has been involved in the front line of politics and has had dealings with people seeking to get votes at elections-whether they are for local government, national government or, in particular, by-elections-will know the importance of that canvass. It is no easy task and, in my view, some canvassers deserve a medal for going around some of the areas where they have to go. I do not like to talk about rough areas or to make the generalisations that some people make about housing estates but some places where people have to go can be very rough. There is a big difference between a canvasser going to a nice, leafy suburb or another area where, let us face it, there may be vicious dogs that are trained to attack strangers. Sometimes they mistake the canvasser for a rent-man or some other person.
It is very important that we keep that canvass. Any of us who has had a constituency as an MP often will have been surprised that, when we have walked by a factory, a sawmill, a garage or whatever, we had not realised that someone lived there. At times, it was not until you got some correspondence that you discovered that the person who owned the property as a commercial viability also was resident there. The canvasser can draw out information that would not be available when you depend on people downloading or sending information across a website. That also goes for disabled people who cannot get out. Often, at the time of the canvass, it is the canvasser who is the contact point.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I know the reasons that the noble Baroness gave for having the canvass in October but, for the safety of canvassers, I would rather see them out on light nights. It is interesting that this week we have turned back the clocks and that we now have the dark nights, particularly in Scotland. Experienced canvassers know that that makes a big difference. When you go into a street on a light night, people are out in the gardens where you could speak to them and get the information that you want without having to go to the door. From a safety point of view, a canvasser feels safer when people are out on the street, rather than being out on a dark, miserable winter's night. This legislation gives the Minister an opportunity to put before Parliament a power to dispense with the canvass, which would be the wrong thing to do. It would not help electoral registration.
Good luck to the Electoral Commission with the work that it has to do but I often wonder about its supervision. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what system is set up to keep in constant contact with the Electoral Commission, not on a day-to-day basis but perhaps on a regular basis, to find out exactly what it is doing and how it is approaching its work. We are leaving with it a very big responsibility, not only of seeing how the electoral register is drafted up, but we are due a referendum in Scotland, and it will be responsible with or helping with the wording of that referendum. We have a responsibility to know whether it is carrying out its job in a professional manner.
My Lords, having come to this debate and this Bill recently, I have found this evening very thought-provoking. I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lords for all their contributions.
The amendments in this group fall largely into two groups-those relating to the conduct of the annual canvass and those relating to the powers in the Bill as to the abolition, amendment or reinstatement of the canvass. Amendment 12 raises the question of when the canvass should take place. One effect of the Bill is the removal of the current requirement for the canvass to collect information about who is a resident at an address on
The reference date is not the only factor that drives registration officers to carry out the canvass in the autumn. Binding registration officers just to October is unduly restrictive, and I was interested in the comments made by my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Martin. This issue has also been discussed with an expert panel of registration officers and electoral administrators who welcomed the removal of the reference date, which is seen to be confusing by many members of the public. For that reason, I do not see the need to include a reference date or a specified canvass period in the legislation.
Amendments 13 and 14 are more specific and relate to the duties of electoral registration officers in carrying out the canvass. I would question the necessity to set out in primary legislation, as Amendment 13 seeks to do, the precise categories of property that a registration officer must contact to comply with the requirement to canvass their area, as their duties under Section 9(1) of the 1983 Act, the Electoral Commission's performance standards and our proposed draft secondary legislation set out the obligation to carry out a canvass. A difficulty with specifying those levels of detail in primary legislation is that it could inadvertently narrow the scope of what EROs are expected to do and make it difficult to change.
Similarly, Amendment 14 seeks to impose a requirement to carry out house-to-house inquiries. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Rennard referred to these matters. Section 9A of the Representation of the People Act 1983 already requires registration officers to take "all steps ... necessary" to maintain the electoral register. This specifically includes making house-to-house inquiries on "one or more occasions". This will remain in the 1983 Act, and it is therefore unnecessary to make the suggested amendment to the Bill. As well as carrying out house-to-house inquiries to obtain information when no canvass form has been received, or to supplement this information, the Bill also enables registration officers to make use of house-to-house inquiries before sending out canvass forms. Indeed, that proposal has been much welcomed by many registration officers.
The next set of amendments relate to the powers set out in the Bill allowing the Government to abolish or amend the annual canvass, but also to reinstate it, if it were to be abolished. Amendment 30 would remove the provision enabling the Minister by order to abolish the duty to conduct an annual canvass. If I may, before addressing this amendment I would like to set out the reason behind the provision to amend or abolish the annual canvass by order in Clause 6. This power is included in the Bill to allow provision to be made in future to help us build a modern electoral registration system, potentially using methods other than a traditional household canvass. However, I assure the noble Baroness that the Government would take the step of abolishing the annual canvass, whether in whole or in part, only if there was another or more effective way identified. In this situation the role of the annual canvass in the upkeep of the electoral register would be less significant than under the scheme set out in the Bill. Only when the annual canvass was less pivotal might it be amended or abolished. Indeed, this diminished significance of the annual canvass would then make it reasonable to use secondary legislation to make this change.
Clause 7 requires any proposal to amend or abolish the annual canvass brought forward under Clause 6 to be subject to rigorous scrutiny and safeguards. Indeed, I remind noble Lords that Clause 7 was in the Bill as from introduction. It sets out that the Minister bringing forward the order must ask the Electoral Commission to prepare a report assessing the extent to which the registration objectives have been met and the merits of alternative ways of achieving those objectives. Then, in turn, the Electoral Commission would be required to publish its report no fewer than three months after being asked to do so and the Minister would then be required to present the report to Parliament alongside the draft order subject to affirmative resolution of both Houses. Clause 6 also provides for the reinstatement of the annual canvass in the event of the abolition resulting in unintended consequences. Our aim with these provisions is to create a system that is flexible and able to respond to advances in technology, but one that has also to be transparent and has the right amount of scrutiny and safeguards built into it.
Amendments 31 and 38 also relate to the Government's power to amend or abolish the annual canvass. They would mean that if an order was laid to modify or abolish the annual canvass a draft of the order would need to be laid before Parliament accompanied by a ministerial recommendation of the parliamentary procedure-negative, affirmative or super-affirmative-which the Minister recommends should apply. In responding to these amendments, I draw the noble Baroness's attention to Clause 10(2) of the Bill which already provides that any order made under Part 1 of this legislation is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It may be made only if a draft of the order is approved by a resolution of both Houses. As the Bill already provides that an affirmative resolution is necessary to make any order under Part 1, the question to consider is what additional safeguards this amendment would introduce. The super-affirmative procedure is rarely used and is appropriate only where the extra scrutiny that it enables is necessary. One of the main features of the super-affirmative procedure is the inclusion of a consultation stage before each House is asked to approve the proposal. However, in the case of the provisions in Clause 6, there is already a two-stage process of a report from the Electoral Commission followed by the normal affirmative procedure in addition to the provisions for a report by the Electoral Commission set out in Clause 7. I believe that this negates the need for a consultation ahead of the laying of the affirmative order which would be required by the super-affirmative procedure.
Amendment 32 seeks to remove the power to reinstate the annual canvass if it has already been abolished. The power to reinstate the canvass if it has been abolished by an order made under Clause 6 is an important safeguard for the system. This provision ensures, for example, that in circumstances where the abolition of the canvass had an unexpected detrimental effect on the completeness of the register, the canvass could be quickly reinstated to reverse this trend.
Amendment 33 relates to orders amending or abolishing the annual canvass. The Government have no current plans to make any such order, but it is important that the provision for this to happen enables it to happen in the right manner. As it stands, Clause 6(5) provides that such an order may also include provision to create further secondary legislation. We would anticipate that an order under subsection (2) would make the main changes to the canvass, including amendments to the existing provisions of the 1983 Act and the main features of the alternative system. We would not, however, expect the detailed procedures to be provided for in this order. Instead, we would expect the order to transfer a power to make separate regulations containing this detail, enabling this to be included in the regulations prescribing other details of the registration system. Those separate regulations would themselves need to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. So this is not about avoiding scrutiny but about structuring the legislation in the most appropriate manner.
Amendments 34 and 35 relate to the Electoral Commission's report that will precede the abolition or amendment of the annual canvass. Amendment 34 would mean that the Electoral Commission's report on any future proposals to amend or abolish the annual canvass must be laid before Parliament and not given to the Minister. Clause 7(6) indeed requires the Minister, when laying a draft order under Clause 6-for example, an order amending or abolishing the annual canvass-to lay at the same time a report by the Electoral Commission about the proposal. That report must assess the extent to which registration officers are currently able to ascertain those unregistered people who are entitled to be registered, those people who are registered but not entitled to be, the extent to which the proposals in the order would meet this objective, and the merits of alternative ways of meeting the objective. Amendment 34 proposes that rather than giving the report to the Minister to be laid with the draft order, the Electoral Commission should itself lay the report before Parliament. While the commission's report will undoubtedly be important for the consideration of any draft order, it will also be an important tool in determining whether the draft order should indeed be laid in the first place. The laying of this order will be at ministerial discretion. Unless the draft order is laid, the Electoral Commission's report is not needed to assist parliamentary consideration of it. Therefore, in the Government's view, this amendment is not necessary. In addition, once the commission has given the report to the Minister, we would expect the report to be published on the commission's website and it would therefore be in the public domain for parliamentarians to read, if they wished to do so.
Amendment 35 would require that instead of the Electoral Commission's report being provided by a date to be specified, it would have to be provided within three to five months of the commission being consulted. I agree that while it is important to allow the commission sufficient time to produce the report, it is also important that the report is produced in a timely fashion and does not delay important legislation. Indeed, from our position today, I cannot envisage circumstances in which a period exceeding five months would be required.
Amendment 37 raises the important and related issue of the role of the Electoral Commission in relation to piloting proposed changes to the annual canvass. Pilot schemes can be introduced to test whether it would be desirable to amend or abolish the annual canvass as a means of achieving the canvassing aims set out in Clause 4-that is, finding those people who are not registered but entitled to be, and those who are registered but not entitled to be.
While Clause 6 requires the commission to produce a report before an order is made to permanently amend or abolish the canvass, for pilot schemes the commission is required to produce an evaluation report after the pilot has taken place. This is so that the evaluation of the pilot can inform the Minister's decision on whether to propose a permanent amendment to the annual canvass under the power of Clause 6. The legislation as drafted already provides that the pilot scheme must be proposed by the registration officer for the area and agreed by the Minister, and the order providing for the pilot will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. For those reasons, I do not consider it appropriate to require an additional stage to be introduced into the formal scrutiny for an order that will have only temporary effect. However, it is of course extremely likely that in practice the Electoral Commission will be involved in the design of any pilot scheme proposed.
Furthermore, the decision to carry out a pilot should be taken by the Minister responsible, and I believe that the proposal in this amendment would undermine that ministerial accountability. I think that that was an additional point made by my noble friend Lord Rennard.
I should like to say to the noble Lord, Lord Martin, that the Electoral Commission is responsible to Parliament through the Speaker's Committee, but there are of course frequent informal conversations between the Cabinet Office and the Electoral Commission.
I think we would also be wise to recall that in recent years additional commissioners have been appointed to the Electoral Commission from the political parties. I think that there was a concern at both ends of the building that the Electoral Commission was not sufficiently in touch with the real-life activities that the noble Lord, Lord Martin, and I experienced in our previous roles. I hope that there is now much less concern that the Electoral Commission may have got out of step with the reality of politics than perhaps was the case a few years back. In addition, as I indicated earlier, there is a cross-party group of informal advisers to the commission, and I hope that that, too, will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Martin. My noble friend is quite right in saying that the commission is very appreciative of, and answerable and accountable to, the Parliament and the public, which it, too, has to serve.
Perhaps I may add to that. I am well aware of what the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, is saying. I suggested that we should have the informal ad hoc committee because I felt that the commission was not in touch with the real world, where people met electors. The Government had a bar on people who were formerly election agents-that is, professional election agents-but I felt that that was ridiculous, because the professional election agents had the skill and expertise, and they knew exactly what was realistic and unrealistic. However, the point I am making is that we are putting more and more responsibility on the Electoral Commission, and there should be strong liaison between the Government and the Electoral Commission to see that the commission is up to the job that it has been given.
My Lords, I am very conscious of the experience of both my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Martin, on these matters. I agree entirely that there needs to be dialogue between the Electoral Commission and parliamentarians so that this is very much a live issue.
I fully appreciate that I have taken some time over the 11 amendments in this group. Given the grounds that I have set out, it remains for me to ask the noble Baroness whether she is in a position to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but I am not happy. There are three elements. The first is whether the canvass should take place in October. I could live with by October, but my concern is that if it is in the spring it will be too late for a May election. The importance thing, therefore, is to get it done by that stage so that there is time to work on it.
The main issue is the annual canvass and the power to abolish it, and all the rest is a way of making it harder to abolish it without the proper say-so of Parliament. I thank the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Martin, for their support for the canvass. I remain suspicious, particularly of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, that "The Government would do this only if ...". That says it all. It would be the Government who do it. As for affirmative resolutions, we know that if you are in government you have a majority in the other House, and we in this House, quite rightly, do not vote against such instruments. Basically, it is a power in the hands of the Government. The whole Committee-there is not much of it at this moment-would be concerned about the Government having the power to abolish the annual canvass.
To some extent, the Minister has admitted that. He talked about the ability to put it back and re-establish it if there were problems and a safeguard was needed. That is a risk too far. The amendments seek to make it harder for the Government to abolish it. Before we come back at Report stage I hope that the Government will think about the need to keep the annual canvass in the Bill without just giving it to a Government to abolish. We will no doubt return to this, but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 17 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5 : Invitations to register
Amendments 18 to 24 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Martin, remarked that there was much else for the House to do, but I am happy to say not for this evening.