Representation of the People (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 7:14 pm on 6 June 2016.

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Moved by Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 28 April be approved.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, these regulations will take steps towards the Government’s vision for the future of electoral registration—one where electoral registers are as complete and accurate as they can be and the electoral registration system is as efficient as possible, delivering value for money for electors and electoral administrators.

First, this will be achieved by amending the individual electoral registration—IER—application forms to allow applicants to identify that they are the only person resident at the address aged 16 or over and to provide discretion to electoral registration officers—EROs—as to when canvass forms must be sent where such information has been given. Secondly, the regulations will modernise the system of registration by enabling EROs to send invitations to register—ITRs—and reminders by electronic means if they wish to do so. These provisions aim to reduce the potential for confusion for members of the public by reducing unnecessary ERO correspondence and contact, and to reduce the overall cost of registration and the administrative burden on EROs. It is estimated that the regulations will reduce the overall cost of IER by around £1.1 million for the single-occupancy provision and around £7 million for email ITRs per year.

The instrument will also allow an attestor to an applicant’s identity to be registered in any local authority area in England and Wales. At present, both the attestor and 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 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 number of minor amendments. Regulation 9 corrects an error in an existing regulation concerning the requirement to provide fresh signatures following rejection of a postal voting statement. Regulation 10 makes a technical amendment to a regulation concerning the rejected postal vote provisions at Greater London Authority elections. Regulation 11 corrects an oversight in current regulations by adding the Local Government Boundary Commission for England to the list of organisations entitled to receive a free copy of the full electoral register. The regulations make a consequential amendment; changing the name of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales, which is entitled to a copy of the register from Welsh EROs, to the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales.

Finally, I draw noble Lords’ attention to a minor error in the draft regulations as laid: the reference in Regulation 8(c) to paragraph (3)(aa)(ii) should be to paragraph (3)(za)(ii). We have been in consultation with counsel to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in relation to this and they have agreed that due to the minor nature of this error they are content for it to be corrected when the instrument is made.

The Electoral Commission has been consulted on this instrument. The Cabinet Office agreed with the EC that it was important that the new IER forms would be available shortly after the regulations were made and that it would work with the commission on this. The EC raised a concern on the single-occupancy provision relating to the proposed removal of the requirement to send a canvass form. In a case where an ERO had determined a registration application just following publication of the revised register—say, on 1 December 2016—where an applicant indicates that they are the only person resident at the address, the ERO would then have no requirement to send a canvass form to that property at the next canvass, meaning that the property may not receive a canvass form until July 2018. To address this risk, the EC suggested that the ERO should not have to send an annual canvass form to persons with single-occupant status in cases where other records indicate that the property continues to be occupied by a single person.

The Cabinet Office responded that EROs have the duty to maintain the completeness and accuracy of the register and have discretion to conduct the canvass or check other records, where circumstances suggest it, and the EC may wish to issue guidance to EROs in this matter to support EROs in these deliberations. The ERO has the discretion and flexibility to disregard the single occupancy status and canvass a property at any time it feels it is appropriate. The ERO will be able to best decide what is appropriate according to the demographic and type of property.

Details were given to the EC of the timing of the ERO’s ability to elect to suppress one canvass for single-occupancy households. This meant that generally the maximum period for a property not receiving a canvass form would be 18 months, and that EROs also had discretion to contact properties outside the canvass period; for example, many EROs contact properties before an election.

The Information Commissioner’s Office—the ICO—was consulted and, in connection with the single occupancy question, requested clarity on the nature of information to be provided by the applicant about other individuals at that address. The Cabinet Office has assured the ICO that the IER application form will not require the applicant to provide any personal details about any other person resident in the property. The ICO also noted that the single occupancy information is not mandatory and would expect this statement to be clear and prominent in order that applicants are fully aware of that. The ICO’s advice was passed to the EC to address during the form design process.

The Cabinet Office expert panel of electoral administrators was involved in the development of the cost optimisation measures and was supportive. One panel member suggested that it be mandatory for at least one hard copy ITR to be sent to mitigate against emails going directly into people’s spam folders. We have responded that EROs will still be able to send hard copies if they wish to do so.

The Scottish Government were concerned that the removal of the requirement to send the next canvass form where the single occupancy application was determined outside the canvass period did not set a time limit, other than the reference to the next annual canvass, within which the application to register must have been made. The Cabinet Office responded in a similar vein, as it had to the concerns raised by the EC.

The Scottish Government also considered that the attestation provision should be extended to allow an ERO in England and Wales to also seek these assurances from EROs in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Cabinet Office responded that rather than place a burden on Scottish and Northern Ireland EROs that these EROs could not currently benefit from, joint policy on cross-border attestations should be developed with the relevant Governments in due course.

The Scottish Assessors Association requested confirmation that the original policy intention was not to differentiate between England and Wales and Scotland in terms of location of attestors, and that the Cabinet Office should hold back on the equivalent Scottish regulations due to the impending further powers in the then Scotland Bill. The Cabinet Office confirmed that that was the case.

In conclusion—your Lordships must have thought I was never going to finish—I hope noble Lords will agree that the statutory instrument helps move electors and electoral administrators towards the Government’s future vision for electoral registration in England and Wales, and I commend the regulations to the House.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I say at the outset that I am generally happy with these regulations. As such, my remarks will be fairly limited, but I have two specific points to make and would be grateful if the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, could respond to them when she replies to this very short debate.

Among other things, the regulations correct an error in existing regulations concerning the requirement to provide fresh signatures following the rejection of a postal vote. However, the Government should also look at the design of the forms, because the box requiring you to give your date of birth is so close to the signature that a very common mistake, which leads to postal votes being rejected, is that people put the date they complete the form in the box rather than their date of birth. Lots are disqualified for that very reason.

The regulations also allow for the transfer of the full electoral register to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England and make a consequential amendment following the passing of the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013. As we have heard, EROs have a duty to maintain the completeness and accuracy of the register and have discretion to conduct the canvass or other checks on records.

I welcome the proposal to send an invitation to register and reminders by electronic means as more and more of how we engage with the state in its various forms is by electronic means, although the point about EROs still being able to use paper forms is well made and I am pleased that they will have the discretion to use either or both media when seeking to get the most accurate and complete register possible.

On page 5 of the Explanatory Notes, the Scottish Government made the point—and I very much agree with them—that EROs in England and Wales should be able to seek assurances from EROs in Scotland and Northern Ireland and, one hopes, vice versa. That is entirely right. The comment from the Cabinet Office, however, was that cross-border attestations were a matter to develop joint policy on with the relevant Governments in due course. That is a bit odd. Could the Minister give us some idea how long “due course” is, as it is one of those phrases like “How long’s a piece of string”? As for cross-border attestations, I thought we lived in a United Kingdom. We need a review of the language used by the Cabinet Office and should never again have such phrases in documents. I am very disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is not here, as I am sure he would have something to say about that—perhaps I should have brought it to his attention.

I conclude by saying that I support the regulations, which do good things. If the Minister could respond to that one point, it would be great.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord for his response. I am grateful to him for scrutinising this instrument, which will make amendments to the electoral registration process to reduce potential confusion for members of the public and enable the cost of registration and the administrative burden on electoral registration officers to be reduced.

In response to the noble Lord’s queries, the postal vote forms have recently been redesigned by the Electoral Commission after user testing. The position of the date of birth information is further up the form as a result. User testing showed that individuals had more understanding of each question asked of them; it seemed clearer.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Shadow Spokesperson (Housing), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

When I cast my vote recently and put my postal vote in the envelope, it actually said on the envelope, “Have you put your date of birth, not today’s date?”. Clearly, everybody knows that it is a problem. One hopes that the new form will work but perhaps we can do some further testing after the referendum. Many people lose their vote in all sorts of elections because they get so confused. Normally, with signatures, you put today’s date—that is quite a common thing to do. I had not noticed that it had moved, although I am sure it has, but we should look at it for the future.

Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The noble Lord makes a good point. We should go back and consider making further changes to make it easier. We will do that.

As for the noble Lord’s point on borders, the mention of attestations being made across borders was the language used in the consultation response from the Scottish Government officials. We also talk about attestations being made across local authority borders. Reference to borders in that context by no means undermines the existence of the United Kingdom; it just reflects that differences exist between the situations in England and Wales. It is more a term of use than anything else.

On the noble Lord’s second point, our estimate is that it will happen in due course, as he says. I can say that I hope that it will be early next year. Productive discussions between Ministers and officials have already begun following the formation of the new Scottish Government. Both Ministers have agreed in principle to take forward joint legislation to make similar changes in Scotland, once the Scotland Act 2016 has devolved powers over the local government register to the Scottish Parliament. Subject to the approval of both Parliaments, we anticipate that changes could be in force early next year. That is good news. That is also subject to the need to co-ordinate all the legislative processes between both Parliaments to ensure that the changes made by the Scottish Government relating to the local government register come into force at the same time as those made by the UK Government relating to the UK Parliament register.

I think I have covered all the questions. The statutory instrument before noble Lords will make useful changes as part of realising the Government’s future vision for electoral registration in England and Wales. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.