Representation of the People (Electoral Registers Publication Date) Regulations 2020 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 3:46 pm on 3 September 2020.

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Lord True:

Moved by Lord True

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 15 June be approved.

Relevant document: 20th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, on 9 June I announced to the House that, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government intended to bring forward legislation to delay the deadline for publication of this year’s revised parliamentary and English local government registers by two months, from 1 December 2020 to 1 February 2021. As we all know, the electoral registers are lists compiled by electoral registration officers—EROs, in the jargon—of people in their areas who are registered to vote. EROs are appointed by local authorities across Britain and each holds two registers: a local government register for local polls and a parliamentary register for national polls, primarily parliamentary general and by-elections. Both registers are also used as an information source for credit reference agencies and in jury summons.

The annual canvass is an information-gathering exercise which ordinarily runs for five months, from 1 July to 1 December, and which EROs are obliged to conduct each year to ensure that their electoral registers are as complete and accurate as possible. The information gathered during the canvass is used to identify both electors who should be deleted from the registers, for reasons such as death, ineligibility or moving address, and eligible electors who are not on the register and therefore to whom invitations to register, or ITRs, should be sent. The ITRs are a separate form from the canvass and may be completed throughout the year, either digitally or in hard copy. The revised register is then published by EROs on or before 1 December, except when an election is held in an ERO’s area during the canvass period, in which case it is automatically delayed until the following 1 February.

This legislation would allow EROs an additional two months in which to conduct their vital work, if they require it, due to the challenges caused by Covid-19. For instance, in addition to the challenges all have faced, the members of electoral services teams in many local authorities have had to contend with reallocation to focus on providing other essential services in local communities. At present, however, EROs in England, Scotland and Wales remain legally obliged to publish the revised electoral register by 1 December 2020, or they will be potentially liable for prosecution for failure to conduct their statutory duties under the Representation of the People Act 1983.

As noble Lords will remember, we brought forward secondary legislation last autumn to make much-needed reforms to the annual canvass process, which were widely welcomed. The most significant change is a new data-matching step at the outset, informing the ERO which households are likely to remain unchanged. This allows the canvass to move away from the cumbersome, one-size-fits-all, paper-based system to a modern and adaptable model in which EROs are now able to use e-communication and phone calls to communicate with electors, as well as being able to continue to use hard copy where appropriate.

Thanks to those reforms, we have reduced the number of people who will need to respond to EROs at all; introduced digital contact methods in place of paper forms, reducing the amount of paper to be manually processed; and introduced the option to use phone contacts where possible, in place of door-knocking. This year’s annual canvass will allow EROs to conduct safer and more responsive canvasses than ever before. None the less, the canvass will still involve large amounts of paper responses and, where phone calls are impossible, door-knocking where a household has not responded to previous attempts to contact them. The in-person contacts and paper elements of the canvass still play a vital role in ensuring the completeness and accuracy of our electoral registers, as they allow those for whom local authorities do not hold phone or digital contact details to be canvassed.

In spite of the impact of Covid-19, the 2020 annual canvass under the reformed system is successfully and safely under way in local authorities across the country; I thank all those involved. The rollout of the national data-matching service successfully matched the records in all local authorities and valuation joint boards across Great Britain, amounting to over 48 million electors, an impressive feat considering the current disruption. This work has been undertaken with full compliance with all data protection regulations and while safeguarding the data of all citizens.

Before bringing forward this legislation, the Government engaged with the electoral services community to consider a range of options to support EROs. One of the alternative options raised was cancelling this year’s canvass and removing the in-person contact requirement—the door knocking. However, the canvass plays a vital role in ensuring the completeness and accuracy of registers on which elections are based. This includes those elections currently due to take place in May 2021, because of the deferment of elections. By cancelling the canvass, we would risk disfranchising voters who had recently reached voting age, moved house, or for some other reason should be added to the register. This would, of course, be unacceptable.

The other option, removing the in-person canvass requirement, has been proved unnecessary due to progress in the response to Covid-19 and the success so far in controlling its spread. Much of society has reopened and we have adapted to the new necessities of Covid-secure working, as we see around us every day. The extension of the publication date, in concert with clear and carefully considered public health guidance for canvassers, will allow EROs to undertake the canvass in full compliance with all Covid-secure requirements.

The Electoral Commission has, in close co-operation with the public health agencies in each of the three nations, already issued guidance to EROs on carrying out a Covid-secure canvass, and my officials are monitoring the situation to provide further non-legislative support as needed. These measures will, together, allow EROs the flexibility to respond to local needs while complying with the prevailing public health guidance. Not only would removing the personal canvass therefore be unnecessary to protect public health, and might risk undermining the quality of the register, it would be legally extremely difficult due to the statutory requirement to consult with the Electoral Commission for three months on any changes to the conduct of the canvass. Having considered the various options, we are bringing forward this legislation to allow EROs additional time to complete the canvass. However, they would still be able to publish before 1 February 2021 if they chose to, in line with current legislation.

The Government have consulted widely across the sector, including with the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Scottish Assessors Association, the LGA—I declare an interest as vice-president of that association—and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, all of which have expressed their support for this measure. I thank my counterparts in Scotland and Wales, and their Governments, for their proactive and positive engagement on this issue. They have brought forward complementary legislation in their respective legislatures.

This legislation will provide the flexibility that EROs need to run a Covid-secure canvass, while safeguarding the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers. I hope and believe that these regulations are uncontentious and technical. They have the support of all major electoral stakeholders, of the Welsh and Scottish Governments and, I venture to hope, of your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 3:55, 3 September 2020

My Lords, I commend the Minister both for the extremely fluent manner in which he introduced this legislation and for its sensible and proportionate content. He invited the House to support it and I doubt that there will be any dissent. It is important that we give the Government credit when they do a good job, because we are always critical when they do not. The way that the consultation on these regulations was conducted, with the devolved authorities, local authorities, electoral administrators and so on, has been almost a model of its kind. The conclusion which the Government drew—to have a short delay in the permissible period for the publication of the register but not to cancel the canvass, which would have potentially led to large numbers of people being disfranchised, as the Minister said—was the right outcome and the response to a well-conducted consultation.

Since the Minister is inviting the House to agree to these arrangements for electoral registration, I will raise a wider issue. One thing that is seriously wrong with our system of electoral registration at the moment, which goes back to the introduction of individual registration, is the way that we deal with people who live in institutions. The two largest groups of those are students in higher education and people who live in care institutions—who have been much in our mind in respect of Covid. Right back to 2015, when individual registration was introduced, electoral administrators and others have been seriously worried about the underregistration of people in institutions, who often move in and out in quite short order. They are often not aware of the fact that they are not registered and there is now no system for automatic registration as there was before. The Minister has introduced these regulations in such a reasonable way. May I invite him to at least agree to look at this further? It is obviously not going to make any change for this year, because it would require legislation, but there would be widespread support for a system allowing EROs automatically to register those in institutions. This could lead to a justifiable improvement in the way that the register works.

It was notable that the report on registrations for last December’s general election by the Office for National Statistics showed a very large increase in registrations in the run-up to the election. Total registration increased by 2.8% between December 2018 and December 2019, to its highest level ever. That is a welcome reflection of engagement in the democratic process, but it is also a commentary on how inaccurate the register was at the start of that period. If it were possible to get an automatically more accurate register, not only through the improvements such as data matching that the Minister rightly noted, but also by means of automatic registration of those in institutions, this would be a welcome advance.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:00, 3 September 2020

My Lords, it matters enormously to English democracy to get the 2021 local elections right, after cancelling the local elections this year. Delaying the date for completing and publishing the electoral registers from December to February 2021 is therefore entirely justifiable. I therefore support this statutory instrument, but I have a number of questions for the Minister on how electoral registration will be improved further.

I note the references in the guidance notes for electoral registration officers to local and national data matching with other local authority datasets and the DWP dataset on national insurance. How does this evolution of data matching fit in with the ambitious proposals that we have just heard about to establish online identity verification throughout the UK, a project that we know is close to Dominic Cummings’ heart? Does the Cabinet Office intend to integrate data matching for electoral registers with identity verification for other purposes beyond the DWP? Will it report to Parliament on how this will be carried forward, and what safeguards against errors will be built in? We know from the controversies over AI that errors can easily be built into such activities.

The more suspicious among us sometimes suspect that Conservatives are more concerned to keep doubtful names off the register than to make sure that every citizen is registered. All democrats ought to be worried that our electoral registers remain incomplete, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just pointed out, and that citizens at the margin, in poverty or out of work are most likely to be left off. The references to data matching that I read in the guidance implied that it would be used to remove names from the register, but not to add any of those missing. Are the Government considering moving, in good time, towards automatic voter registration for all citizens, which the move to digital government, at both national and local level, should make possible? If not, will the Minister commit to raising this issue within government as one that the digital enthusiasts around Mr Cummings should include in their plans?

I welcome the debate on this SI in the Chamber. The House must anticipate a flood of SIs this autumn, as the Government struggle to catch up with the legislation needed to complete our break from the European Union. Will the Minister and the Government Front Bench also note that Members will expect to be able to scrutinise and approve these SIs, not to face ministerial attempts to cram them through in large batches. The Brexit campaign promised to restore parliamentary sovereignty. Our current Prime Minister wants instead to restore executive prerogatives. We will resist his efforts.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Deputy Chairman of Committees

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is not here. I call the next speaker.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 4:02, 3 September 2020

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I welcome this sensible proposal from government. I am sure it will have unanimity, because of its common sense. I have a few questions, even suggestions, to government to facilitate the process over the next few months.

I remain concerned about the situation for registration in care homes. I may be out of date, but I understand that managers of care homes are able to register those living in care homes and submit that to an ERO. I want to confirm that that remains the case, because the last thing we want is any requirement for visits from any council official into a care home to ensure that perhaps 50 or 60 people, some of whom would both be capable and want to participate in an election, are able to be registered. That is an important clarification. Perhaps further guidance is needed for local authorities on dealing with care homes in the current situation.

If, during January, any local authority area is hit by an ongoing lockdown, as recently with Leicester, and their staff are therefore unable to access work fully or even at all, will there be any discretion in relation to the 1 February deadline because of that longer localised lockdown? Has that been considered by government?

Perhaps most important in the current situation, where we all want to encourage the maximum economic enterprise, is the situation with young people, not least those in universities but also in school sixth forms and further education colleges. There is a danger that there will be underregistration. There has tended to be among such groups, particularly those in further education. As the Government have identified, credit reference agencies use the electoral register as a basis for credit referencing. Any young person eligible to go on the register, as they are at 17 or 18 years old, who fails to will have more expensive credit in the future, be it for a car loan, a credit card or mortgage offers. It directly impacts on their economic viability and prosperity in the immediate future. Very few realise that. I wonder whether a guidance note for local authorities and FE colleges could be given by government to assist that process.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 4:05, 3 September 2020

My Lords, I concur with the generous opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but I have questions that need to be asked about the Government’s approach to these issues. First, does the Minister accept what is set out in the 2014 legislation, which maintains the principle that it is a legal requirement to co-operate with the electoral registration process? It is a serious legal requirement, because failure to co-operate can result in a £1,000 fine. A fine may very rarely be imposed, but the mention of it on registration forms improves the rate of response. Will the Cabinet Office therefore work with the Electoral Commission and electoral registration officers to ensure that the best practice of highlighting the legal requirement and the possibility of a £1,000 fine is prominent on all the relevant forms? This should not be a matter for more than 400 electoral registration officers to determine individually.

Does the Minister also accept that Parliament determined that individuals who do not co-operate with later stages of the registration process can be subject to a civil penalty? Again, the frequency with which such penalties are imposed is not relevant; prominent reference to the possibility of such penalties can only assist the process of making the registers more complete.

Will the Minister look again at some of the problems associated with people seeking to register themselves, unaware of whether they are already registered? Many of them waste time applying, as they are already registered. They also waste the valuable time of electoral registration officers. Will he look again at models, such as those in Australia and New Zealand, where people can easily check online whether they are already registered?

Fundamentally, will the Minister accept that the right to vote should not be based on opting in, any more than people have to opt in to the right to receive medical attention, the support of the police, or other emergency services when necessary. The right to vote depends upon being included in the electoral registers. As the Electoral Commission’s market research has shown, most people wrongly assume that they are automatically included in these registers. That must be a big reason why so many of them do not return the registration forms and are therefore not able to vote, unless they realise that they must act in time to get registered.

According to the Electoral Commission, some 9 million people may be missing from the electoral registers or are not correctly included on them. This seriously distorts calculations for drawing up constituency boundaries. Finally, I ask the Minister if he has considered yet the excellent report of the House’s Select Committee, which looked at the working of the 2014 electoral registration legislation and sensibly concluded that we now need a system of automatic voter registration.

Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 4:09, 3 September 2020

My Lords, my noble friend Lord True spoke of Covid-secure working. It is very good to see him on the Bench today and so many Members speaking in the Chamber. That has been a characteristic of the Order Paper today, with far more Peers here and speaking. It is an important symbol to the country at large as we encourage people to get back to work. Going on the Underground this week to my own office and coming back to your Lordships’ House to take part in this debate, I have seen how good it is for people to get together again. The more we have Covid-secure working, the better—whether in electoral calculations or in any other way.

That said, I intend to concentrate my remarks on two areas aimed particularly at parliamentary rather than local government registration. First, people changing constituencies, as is going to happen, and seeing them carved up and redistributed is always disturbing for the Members of Parliament involved. About 20% or 21% of your Lordships—about 170 in number—have been Members of Parliament before and have been through this turmoil. I went through it once in my life. It was disturbing in some ways but reassuring when I suddenly found I had my noble friend Lord Hayward’s family as my new constituents. They seemed to put up with the situation pretty well as time went on.

None of us knows what will happen in the next few months, and I think we need reassurances. My noble friend the Minister took us through the new forms of electoral registration—online, telephoning, less knocking on the doors and all the rest of it—which cause problems, of course. If any other Covid-19 problems suddenly occur, we must not give way to again delaying this process, because we must have the parliamentary redistribution ready by 2023. It is easy for me to say that, but the fog of pandemic seems more all-enveloping and all-confusing than the fog of war ever was. I do not know what will happen, but I look for reassurances that we are going to get on with the task, which hard-working EROs and their teams, working in a Covid-secure way, are doing.

My second point is that security is very important. As I just said, my noble friend took us through the different ways in which potential electors are being approached—telephones and all the rest of it. It is quite clear that the next general election, whenever that is, will be beset by accusations that people are trying to interfere with the elections themselves, whether they are foreign actors, hackers or whoever else. The last thing we want is to see the veracity and truthfulness of the electoral registers undermined in any way with accusations that they were improperly collected. Mercifully, as far as I heard in the list of changes my noble friend read, algorithms were not introduced at all as something that might come along down the track. We should be grateful for that. I urge the Government and EROs nationally to do all they possibly can to ensure that no security breaches happen in any way at all and that security is maintained.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 4:13, 3 September 2020

My Lords, I first thank my noble friend Lord Patten for his kind comments about my family. From the elections he fought, he will have noticed that the fields and farms voted very heavily indeed for him. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for giving me due notice that she is unable to be present this afternoon and that therefore the order has been changed.

There is general agreement that these regulations are necessary, and I will not touch on that further because I share that view. I will raise just one or two points. I particularly welcome my noble friend’s comment, in his introduction of these regulations, that the AEA has been consulted. The committee to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred was regularly overwhelmingly impressed by the effort the EROs put in as we legislators impose more and more elections on them with more regularity. They had such a positive, can-do attitude and no doubt are approaching these regulations in exactly the same way. I am under the impression from the introduction that this is providing general flexibility and building on a basis of flexibility for the system to ensure that we can adequately cope with the circumstances we face under Covid.

I will touch on two other points. First, for the record I ask my noble friend to identify the reasons why Northern Ireland is not included in these regulations. As I understand it, it is because it operates a different system, but it is worth identifying that it does not do an annual canvass.

Secondly, in the Explanatory Memorandum there is a reference to EROs and, on page 3, the

“lack of access to specialist software and printed correspondence”.

I am somewhat confused by the persistent reference to the absence of adequate software. IT programmes have been in existence for rather a long time. We heard this the other day in the committee at the other end of this building on the parliamentary constituency boundaries, and I am really not sure why the software was not available. I am beginning to wonder why that is so regularly the case.

In conclusion, I pick up on one thing the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said. He cited Australia and New Zealand. In fact, Ireland operates exactly the same system. Our committee heard evidence from the Cabinet Office that the cost was exorbitant. Not only does it seem to me that software packages in EROs’ offices are inadequate, but I encourage the Cabinet Office to look more seriously at the costings it has been given for some of these alternative programmes.

Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Constitutional and Political Reform) 4:16, 3 September 2020

My Lords, shortly I will have some welcoming comments to add to the substantial points made by my noble friends Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Rennard and other Members of your Lordships’ House, but first I register a double disappointment with the Minister’s introduction to this short debate. It was an obvious opportunity for him to give the Government’s outline response to the formidable report of the Select Committee on the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, published shortly before the recess, if only to indicate the likely timing for a fuller response. Other noble Lords have referred to that excellent report. Its key recommendation for the Government was that they must ensure that they treat improving accuracy and completeness as a major priority in future reforms to electoral registration and administration. Clearly, this SI forms part of that exercise.

As we have heard from colleagues on all sides, the date for revised registers to be published can have a long-term impact on their value. However, a more substantial issue that lies behind these discussions is the central priority objective of seeking to ensure that the absolute maximum of eligible fellow citizens are on that register. It would have been encouraging to hear the Minister reiterate the Government’s clear commitment to that effect.

My second disappointment relates to the Minister’s failure to make an unequivocal statement of support for the Electoral Commission. It is a statutory consultee for this SI under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. He will have seen, as we all have, an extraordinary attack on the commission last weekend by Amanda Milling, who is apparently something in the Conservative Party hierarchy. She was widely reported as accusing the commission of being “accountable to no one”. Whatever her position there, she surely has only a very limited grasp of the fundamentals of the UK constitution and particularly of the role of Parliament.

The Electoral Commission is a statutory regulator for our democracy whose independence and integrity are recognised worldwide. It is not accountable to the Government, let alone any political party, but it is accountable to Parliament. For Miss Milling to seek to undermine its authority in this way, with or without No. 10 approval, is surely outrageous. Why is she, presumably with her party colleagues, so scared of the commission undertaking the role it has been given by Parliament? For her to suggest that some of the commission’s investigatory responsibilities should be handed over to local police forces is plainly ridiculous and will rightly be condemned by her own party’s MPs and candidates. I hope and trust that the Minister will take the opportunity in this debate to disassociate the Government from this idiotic attack on the commission.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of a comprehensive electoral register for the credibility of, and public respect for, all levels of elections in this country. Since, as we now know, May 2021 will see an unprecedented number and range of elections as a result of the Covid-19 postponement, this is especially topical and relevant in the months leading up to them, as my noble friend Lord Wallace reminded the House. Therefore, I echo the concerns expressed on all sides of the House and, to be brief, I will not repeat them all.

In particular, I hope the Minister will be able to answer in detail the relevant questions posed by my noble friends Lord Wallace and Lord Rennard and by other Members, if not today, then in a written response to all participating in this debate.

I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, referred to Northern Ireland because I, too, do not fully understand exactly why it is not taken as read that it has an improved system for assuring that young attainers are registered. Surely, if it is a better system, we should be looking at it more carefully to see whether it could be more relevant on this side of the Irish Sea.

I also want to reinforce what was just said by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the effect on constituency boundaries, with which we will, of course, be very much concerned in your Lordships’ House in the coming weeks.

The key question for the Minister is that, surely, it must be important for the Government to have a clear picture—an updated estimate—of the number of eligible citizens not currently registered to vote. That is the bedrock of our parliamentary and local democracy, and it needs urgent attention.

Photo of Lord Kennedy of Southwark Lord Kennedy of Southwark Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Housing) 4:21, 3 September 2020

My Lords, first, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interest as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for introducing the regulations and setting out for the House the reasons for their introduction. I support the regulations as they stand; they give EROs two additional months before they must publish the new electoral register for the area they are responsible for. I have a few questions and some observations to make.

One of the problems, referred to by a number of noble Lords, is underregistration in the United Kingdom. One of my concerns is that the pandemic will have made matters worse. There is nothing in this proposal that addresses that situation, other than extending the period by two months. I concur very much with the comments of my noble friend Lord Adonis when he referred to the problem of underregistration, as many other noble Lords have done. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, also pointed out that it is often people on the margins of society who find themselves excluded and left off the register.

As many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Mann, said, this particularly affects not only people’s right to express their view and support a party, or whoever, at an election but also their ability to confirm their identity, particularly in terms of their credit rating. If you are not registered to vote, it has huge implications for that and we really need to make sure that people, particularly young people, fully understand the consequences for them on this issue.

The noble Lord, Lord True, is vastly experienced in local government and led a London borough for many years. I am sure he appreciates the difficulties that many local authorities face at present. A vast array of duties and burdens is placed on local government, but there also must be an adequate level of resource to fulfil those obligations. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to the difficulties caused by the redeployment of staff to other duties in some cases, the inability to carry out some functions at home, and the lack of specialist software and printed correspondence, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. However, other than extending by two months, we have not addressed those issues at all because this is not a normal year—this is not an election year—so what are we going to do beyond that?

It was good to hear from the noble Lord that there has been consultation with the wider electoral community. When I looked through the Explanatory Notes, that was not very clear. There was a reference to the Electoral Commission, but it is good to hear that the Government have consulted it, and I thank them very much for that. The Electoral Commission has a very important role. It expresses a view, collects data from the EROs, publishes data, develops standards and comes up with proposals, but it does not do the work on the ground. It is the EROs who do this and it is very important that they are consulted, so I was pleased to hear that we have done that.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about the security of the ballot. This is vital and it must be the Government’s most important job to ensure that the elections next year, and in future, are free and fair. We cannot go on with any suggestion that elections are being manipulated. However, it goes beyond the register. The Government have a serious job to look at the activities of foreign states—and what it is alleged that they did or did not do—and the failure of some companies that have their platforms abused by all sorts of people but do nothing about it. It is vital that the Government get a grip on this issue; we have to be confident that our elections are free and fair and that the people elected are legitimate. It is important to ensure that we do this.

However, there is no reference to consultation with political parties in the Explanatory Memorandum, which says, at paragraph 12, that for businesses, voluntary groups and everybody else the impact is minimal. I think political parties are voluntary groups and the Cabinet Office meets with political parties at the political parties panel. They usually meet on the same day that the parties meet the Electoral Commission, but it is an entirely separate meeting. This should have been brought up there because I think that the impact will not be minimal for all parties and this has not been recognised, which is regrettable.

The elections will take place in May 2021. The register will be published two months later and you then have less time to get the data on to the computer systems to run elections. Parties are a vital part of the political process in this country, so they should have been recognised there. If, as a political party, you are working from an incorrect register, you could knock on a door and find that the person behind it is not who you thought they would be. This is an issue; it is annoying and should be corrected.

Many noble Lords have made many other points and I cannot comment on them all, but I am sure the noble Lord will respond to them clearly today or, as has been suggested, we will get a round-robin letter. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 4:27, 3 September 2020

My Lords, I thank all those who have spoken with grace, in every sense of the word, for the kind reception to the regulations and the thoughtful contributions that have been made. Certainly, I will take up the point asked about by the noble Lords, Lord Tyler and Lord Kennedy. If I fail to answer any points in the time available, I will make sure that the House is informed.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, was the first to express his very understandable concern—which I and the Government share—about those who are hard to reach, including people in student accommodation and care homes. It is extremely important and the Government are concerned to make sure that the maximum number of people who should have the right to vote do have the right to vote.

I do not accept the implication of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that there is a suspicion that the Government or the Conservatives wish to stop people registering in any way. That is entirely unfounded and I thought it a little aside from the general tone of the debate. Indeed, I explained to the House that the Government had declined to abandon the personal canvass—the door knocking—which was put forward as one of the things that we might do, because that is a way in which one can visit and get to people.

On automatic registration, which crept out in the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis, Lord Wallace, Lord Rennard, and others, I know that an amendment has been tabled for the discussions we will shortly have on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill, when there will be more time to explore this topic than there is now. Some argue that automatic registration negates the need for a canvass at all. However, automatic registration, in the eyes of some, goes against the fundamental principle of individual electoral registration —of individuals taking ownership of registering to vote. Significant practical issues would need to be overcome. For example, there was reference to data matching. No single dataset has been identified that would allow an ERO to establish all aspects of eligibility to register to vote, in particular nationality. The Government are therefore opposed to the creation of a new database containing personal identifiers that has national coverage. Such a database would clearly pose a significant risk to data security, to pick up on my noble friend Lord Patten’s point.

My noble friend Lord Hayward raised Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the canvass in Northern Ireland is not an annual event like in Great Britain. Because of a different approach to voter identification it is undertaken only once every 10 years. That means that when the canvass takes place it is much more resource intensive than the annual canvass in the rest of the UK. Because of the very unique set of circumstances facing electoral staff in Northern Ireland, the Coronavirus Act delayed the canvass in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, was kind to refer to my service in local government. I said in my opening remarks that one should at every opportunity express the profoundest thanks to the EROs and others engaged in this operation. They are the oil that makes democracy work.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked some questions about making people co-operate and the co-operation requirement. I agree that that is an important point. It is currently a legal requirement to include reference to a civil penalty on the ITR form and on the canvass form, but I think that the noble Lord was saying that that could be made more prominent. I will certainly take away that point. I accept that it should be on the form. I understand that it is in the form because co-operation is important.

We welcome the Select Committee report referred to by the noble Lord and my noble friend Lord Hayward. We will respond in due course.

I touched on canvass reform, which improves the way that EROs can canvass properties such as student accommodation and care homes. That has been welcomed by all across the electoral community. Officials are working to help facilitate relationships between EROs and care homes and student accommodation, which might include items such as better guidance. It is certainly extremely important that people in care homes should have the right to vote. I used to enjoy canvassing the care home at the bottom of my road because I rarely went away without a piece of cake. I thought that this was the reverse of treating, until I was told that the other slice was being saved for the Lib Dem candidate. I noticed that it was slightly bigger than the one given to me. Everybody of every age must have access to the vote.

My noble friend Lord Patten referred to algorithms. I will not follow on that. I come from the age when we learned logarithms at school. It is a dangerous area to go into, but I assure him that security is very important. We do not wish for more electoral delay. Indeed, the boundary review will be made against the pre-Covid March 2020 register to avoid further delay.

I hate disappointing the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. He is such an agreeable Member of your Lordships’ House and he constantly tells me that I disappoint him. I fear I might disappoint him again. He referred to the Electoral Commission. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is holding a review into the Electoral Commission. It is quite reasonable that political parties give their views on the topic. I do not think that it is an outrage. I am sure that Liberal Democrat Members will equally make comments and contributions to that review.

My noble friend Lord Hayward asked about flexibility. The purpose of this is very much flexibility. The Government do not expect everybody to now wait until 1 February 2021 if this can be done in the normal timescale, as it should. Some of that flexibility is to take account of the local lockdowns that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to in his very interesting and informed remarks.

I hope that I have referred to most of the points that have been raised. If I have failed to do so I apologise to your Lordships here in person and I will repeat those apologies in the letter I will send to pick up any points that I failed to pick up in the debate.

I reiterate my thanks to all those involved in the election process. I certainly commit the Government to the position that we want the maximum number of people to exercise their vote in this country and to have the access to do it. My goodness, the sacrifices and battles that people made across the generations to secure the right to vote for every citizen mean that it is vital that it should be enjoyed. I hope that this modest measure to improve the canvass will assist in that objective. I look forward to further and perhaps longer discussions—I hope not too long—shortly on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Indeed, as I have said to the House before, the Government are considering many aspects of the electoral system. Over this Session we will have many opportunities to engage on these important issues. I leave informed and improved by the many contributions today. I have not agreed with all of them, but I have agreed with very many of them. I am extremely grateful to those noble Lords who took part.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.