Representation of the People (Annual Canvass) (Amendment) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:43 pm on 31st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness Chisholm of Owlpen Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 12:43 pm, 31st October 2019

My Lords, the annual canvass is an information-gathering exercise which electoral registration officers, appointed by local authorities across Great Britain, are obliged to conduct each year to ensure their local electoral registers are as complete and accurate as possible. This currently involves sending a form to each residential address with a prepaid, pre-addressed envelope, which households must legally respond to, whether or not the details the ERO holds for that address are accurate. This is followed up with a further two written reminders and a household visit if the household does not respond.

This one-size-fits-all approach to the annual canvass, which incorporates numerous prescribed steps, takes little account of differences within and between registration areas. The current regime is heavily paper-based, complex to administer and stifles innovation. It is expensive and inefficient, for both government and EROs, and is financially unsustainable in its current form. Furthermore, it is clear that the current process leads to confusion for the citizen. If you have lived at the same property for 30 years, it seems nonsensical to complete and return a form every year stating the same thing.

As part of our commitment to making the process of electoral registration as smooth and simple as possible, in 2016 and 2017 we worked with 24 local authorities to design and deliver pilots across Great Britain to test whether or not there were potential alternatives to the current annual canvass process which could be more efficient and at least as effective. The evaluation of the pilots provided a strong body of evidence which has informed the development of a new, less prescriptive and burdensome canvass model that will still act as an effective audit of the electoral registers.

These regulations implement this new model. The most significant change is that the new model moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach and instead provides for a more tailored canvass. Households that have not changed since the previous year can follow a more streamlined, cost-effective process, enabling the ERO to target their resources to where responses and updates to the electoral register are likely to be required. These households will be identified through a new data-matching step at the outset which will inform the ERO which households are likely to remain unchanged. The pilots showed that between 57% and 83% of households across the pilot sites remained unchanged since the previous year. By identifying these properties, the ERO will be able to focus their attention on the properties likely to require additions to the register, and specifically to direct more resources towards registering to vote those hard-to-reach groups.

The data-matching step will involve EROs matching their data on registered electors against data held by the DWP and, where relevant, locally held data sources. Where the data the ERO holds on registered electors matches data in a national or other locally held dataset, the ERO can have a level of confidence that the details they hold on their electoral register remain accurate. The ERO will then follow one of three routes for each property. Route 1 is the matched properties route. This will be used for properties for which the data indicates that the names the ERO holds on the electoral register for that property are likely to be complete and accurate. By introducing route 1, we will align the audit of the electoral registers with citizens’ expectations, as they will now no longer have to take any action regarding the canvass unless updates are required to their household’s entry. Route 1 will also save EROs conducting a resource- intensive canvass exercise for a property where there is a high likelihood of the correct people being registered on the electoral register.

Route 2 is the unmatched properties route. This is the default route and will be used for properties for which the data-matching exercise has highlighted that there may be a change in the people who are currently registered, or not registered, for the property. This route is similar to the current canvass process but allows the ERO to use e-communications and telephone calls to communicate with electors instead of hard-copy correspondence. Route 3 is the defined properties route. This will be available for properties for which the ERO believes they can more effectively and efficiently obtain the current list of residents using an alternative approach. The ERO will be able to identify a “responsible person” to provide the most up-to-date list of people who should be invited to register in respect of the property. Examples of such properties are care homes and student halls of residence, where a care home manager or a university accommodation manager are in a unique position to provide the ERO with the information of everyone who lives in the accommodation.

In respect of all three routes, these regulations allow for more efficient and modern communication methods, such as emails, text messages, telephone calls or a short letter encouraging electors to respond using online channels rather than via post. With the introduction of these communication methods we have ensured that safeguards are in place, such as by guaranteeing that each property will be contacted and given the chance to update their details.

Noble Lords will wish to note that the provisions outlined in these draft regulations relate only to the parliamentary registers across Great Britain and the local government register in England. Under the respective devolution settlements, responsibility for the local government registers in Scotland and Wales is devolved. The final canvass reform policy was agreed between the Minister for the Constitution and counterparts in the Scottish and Welsh Governments. It will be for the Welsh and Scottish Governments to introduce complementary legislation to cover the local government registers in Wales and Scotland. We have worked closely with officials in the Welsh and Scottish Governments to enable them to create complementary statutory instruments, which they are due to lay in their respective legislatures in the coming weeks. This should enable these reforms to be in place across Great Britain registers by the beginning of 2020. This shows that, even in these most politically divisive times, Administrations of different colours can work collaboratively to ensure that the fundamental pillar of our democracy—maintaining a complete and accurate register enabling participation in elections—is given support to flourish and improve.

The EROs fully support these reforms to the annual canvass. Given their frontline experience administering the process year on year, they are best placed to understand how important modernising this process is. These regulations are the culmination of three years of collaboration with key stakeholders, such as the Association of Electoral Administrators, and the Scottish Assessors Association, which represent EROs and electoral administrators. A public consultation was also run on these new proposals, garnering responses from electoral administrators throughout the country. In addition to this, government officials visited every region of Britain presenting the proposed reforms to groups of electoral administrators ahead of the publication of the final statement of canvass reform policy in September. It is worth noting that feedback from the electoral community on the proposed reforms has been positive. In his response to the 2018 consultation, Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the AEA, said:

“We believe that using data to deliver a better experience for citizens is the right approach to take. Electors cannot understand the necessity to confirm their details each year and allowing them to be contacted without needing to respond is a step forward. It will also deliver much needed cost savings to local authorities”.

The Government have also worked closely with the Electoral Commission on the design of these reforms. Section 8 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 provides that the commission must be consulted on certain changes to the annual canvass process. The Electoral Commission’s report on these regulations, laid alongside them, was also overwhelmingly positive. In particular, it noted:

“The canvass reform proposals should result in greater efficiency, allowing Electoral Registration Officers … to focus their increasingly limited resources on areas of greatest need thereby better meeting the objective of the canvass”.

The Government were also required to consult the Information Commissioner’s Office on the regulations. The ICO noted:

“We are satisfied that the draft SI accurately reflects the aims of the project and is correctly limited in scope to deliver the Canvass Reform … [T]he Cabinet Office has, so far, weighed the risks and benefits of the new scheme, considered its necessity and proportionality, and sought to mitigate the risks identified.”

Noble Lords may note that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has raised some concerns around the Explanatory Memorandum, which is being rewritten to address those concerns and will be published next week. However, it has raised no concerns with the policy or statutory instrument itself. Also, it is important to note, in this momentous week with the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill 2019-20 coming through Parliament, that this draft statutory instrument has no impact on the registration for this election, and in the future will continue to maintain the high standards that electoral registration officers achieve in ensuring that all eligible electors are able to register to vote.

In conclusion, the current annual canvass process is not fit for purpose. Put simply, these regulations would give EROs greater flexibility to decide how to canvass their local areas, providing them with opportunities to identify where greater efficiencies could be made locally. They will also make the citizen experience more streamlined and user-friendly. These regulations are uncontentious, largely technical, and have the support of all major electoral stakeholders, as well as the Welsh and Scottish Governments. They also meet our 2017 manifesto commitment to,

“continue to modernise and improve our electoral registration process, making it as accessible as possible so that every voice counts”.

By bringing the annual canvass process into the 21st century, we are doing that. I beg to move.