New Clause 19

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:00 pm on 18 November 2008.

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CORE information and action to be taken by electoral registration officers

‘(1) Section 2 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 (c. 22) (co-ordinated on-line record of electors: use of information) is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection (6)—

(a) in paragraph (b), after “is requested” there is inserted “in respect of the same address or”;

(b) in paragraph (c), for “acts as” there is substituted “is appointed as, or votes as,”.

(3) After subsection (6) there is inserted—

“(6A) A CORE scheme may require that where a CORE keeper informs an ERO as mentioned in subsection (5), or informs an ERO of any suspicions that the CORE keeper has concerning the commission of an offence under the 1983 Act or other impropriety—

(a) the ERO must take such steps (if any) as appear to the ERO to be appropriate in response to being so informed;

(b) the ERO must notify the CORE keeper of the steps taken (or of the reasons for not taking any), within such period and in such form and manner as is specified—

(i) in the scheme, or

(ii) by the CORE keeper in accordance with the scheme.”

(4) In subsection (7)(b), after “relating to the person” there is inserted “, or to any such suspicions as are mentioned in subsection (6A),”.

(5) In subsection (11)—

(a) for “must not authorise” there is substituted “must not—

(a) authorise”;

(b) at the end there is inserted—

“(b) authorise one ERO to supply information to another.”’.—[Mr. Wills.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendment No. 129.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am moving this clause now because it is necessary for the successful implementation of the co-ordinated online record of electors scheme, and if we do not pass it, there may be delays in the implementation of the scheme. Subsection (2) expands the circumstances in which the CORE keeper must inform an electoral registration officer that improprieties involving electoral records or potential absent voter fraud may have arisen.

As for postal votes, the CORE keeper will now be required to notify electoral registration officers when more than a specified number of postal votes are requested for a single address, as well as for a redirection address. That is in response to feedback from electoral registration officers that the number of postal vote redirections is minimal and that there would be greater value in looking at all instances when large numbers of postal votes have been requested to close the opportunity for postal vote fraud to occur.

The new clause also provides that the CORE keeper will be required to notify electoral registration officers when the same person is appointed or votes as proxy for more than two electors. Being appointed as proxy for more than two electors is not in itself an offence, but voting as proxy for more than two electors who are not close relatives is. The new clause will provide an opportunity for electoral registration officers to remind those appointed as proxies of the legal position.

Subsection (3) of the new clause extends the Secretary of State’s order-making powers in respect of a CORE scheme order so that he or she can require an electoral registration officer to take steps, if any, that seem to the electoral registration officer to be an appropriate response to a notification from the CORE keeper. It will be the responsibility of the electoral registration officer to decide what steps should be taken or whether steps should be taken at all. That is consistent with the nature of the statutory appointment of electoral registration officers, in that they are ultimately responsible for their own electoral registers. When deciding how to respond to a notification from the CORE keeper, electoral registration officers will be free to make best use of their professional judgment, local knowledge and experience.

Subsection (3) also requires electoral registration officers to report to the CORE keeper about either the steps taken in response to information provided by the CORE keeper or the reasons for not taking steps. That will enable the CORE keeper to maintain an overview of how the CORE scheme is running and ensure consistency throughout the scheme. Subsection (4) of the new clause allows the CORE keeper to provide relevant information to an electoral registration officer when the CORE keeper has a suspicion that an offence has been committed or may have been committed under the Representation of the People Act 1983 or that there has been some other impropriety.

Subsection (5) of the new clause allows a CORE scheme to provide for the electoral registration officers to share information with each other for the purposes of responding to information supplied by the CORE keeper under the provisions. That will allow electoral registration officers to work together across electoral boundaries for the purpose of taking steps in response to notifications from the CORE keeper. The new clause is essential to the detection of fraud and in making sure that the prevention functions of the CORE scheme work effectively. It will ensure that the CORE scheme can be delivered without unnecessary delay.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 12:15, 18 November 2008

I am pleased that the Minister has tabled the new clause because we support all efforts that are made by the Government to stop electoral fraud. As I have said several times, we want the workings of our democratic system to be absolutely watertight and we are in favour of every reasonable measure taken to ensure that that is brought about. When the CORE scheme was introduced, we supported it for that reason.

However, I am worried that, in the few years since the scheme was introduced, it has not achieved anything. Little has been done, but it has cost a lot of money. If that money were invested in improving our record on electoral fraud, I would be all in favour of it, but we have seen a lot of money spent and little result. The Minister might explain that there is a long time lag in the spending of money and the setting up of some parts  of the CORE scheme. If he does, I will have to accept that. However, when we first discussed the matter during consideration of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 some three years ago, we all hoped that something along the lines of CORE would happen. We hoped that by the time we were looking at another general election and the important European elections that we are about to face, the CORE scheme might be achieving something.

However, in a written answer to a question that I put to the Minister a couple of weeks ago, we discover that to date, the staff costs of CORE are £2.78 million and that £1.73 million has been spent

“to enable local authorities’ electoral management systems to output data in an agreed Election Mark Up Language (EML) format.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2008; Vol. 481, c. 559W.]

I accept that those sums, and the other several thousands of pounds that have been spent in the intervening period, are necessary. One does not get the results if one does not invest in the technology—I am in favour of that. However, I have a couple of questions to ask the Minister in this respect.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

To clarify the point, is the hon. Lady suggesting that we should not spend this money on getting an agreed system for outputting data?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

No, not at all. I am saying that if we can see that this expenditure is investment in a good system to combat fraud, we are certainly in favour of it. I am not suggesting that it is an enormous amount of money; it is a few million pounds, and when covering the whole country, I accept that that is what these things cost. Every penny of taxpayers’ money spent in this way will be well spent if it brings about the result that we hope for.

However, two aspects in particular concern me. I am sure that the Minister is aware of these points and will be able to address them. The first is that, generally, the Government’s record on investing in technology has not been good. In the Ministry of Justice alone, several projects have gone way over budget and have not achieved what they ought to have achieved. I am not suggesting that that has yet happened with the CORE scheme. I also appreciate that the Minister has not had responsibility for this area of policy development for very long, so I do not hold him personally responsible, or suggest that he has not carried out his duties properly. However, we have had many examples of massive expenditure on Government technology, on computer systems that do not work, on new technology which promises the earth and where Ministers announce in the House, “We will be able to achieve x, y and z because we have spent £10 million on a, b and c,” and it does not happen. People rely on technology and it does not work. Not only do the Government not achieve what they set out to achieve, but they are often in a worse position than they were before they spent all the money on the technology.

I hope that that will not happen with CORE. I am not suggesting that the evidence we have so far indicates that the whole CORE project is likely to fail and I seriously hope that it does not. We want this project to work; we want the fight against electoral fraud to be won and we will do all we can to support the Government in that respect. I merely draw the Minister’s attention to  the fact that some of his colleagues have been very unsuccessful in bringing about good end results in the technology projects that they have started. I hope that he will be able to assure us that vast amounts of money will not be spent on CORE to no avail. I appreciate that he may have good explanations of why it has not achieved anything yet, but I would like to give him the opportunity to say what it will achieve in future, hopefully without the spending of further enormous amounts of taxpayers’ money.

My second concern is the security of data, another matter on which the Government have a bad track record. Again, it is not this Minister and this project that have been in trouble—far from it. Let us hope that they never will be. However, even he must admit that his colleagues in many Departments have been responsible for massive losses of data that should have been kept secure and safeguarded on behalf of the members of the public to whom it related. My one concern—[Interruption.]

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

Thank you, Sir Nicholas.

My one concern when I first looked at the proposals for a co-ordinated online record of electors was that it was yet another instance of the Government bringing enormous amounts of information to a central point. There is always a danger in that, because, as we have seen with child benefit, many Ministry of Defence information sources, even provisional driving licences and many more examples that I shall not take the Committee’s time to explore, the more the Government bring vast amounts of information together in a central place, the more risk there is of that information going astray. We do not want that to happen in the case of CORE.

I seek assurances that the Minister has learned from the mistakes of his colleagues and that the data security aspect of the provision will be taken into consideration. It is unimaginable what a catastrophic effect there would be if the information concerned were brought to a central point and then lost. I assume that the technology will be good enough that the information would not be lost for ever, which would be quite ridiculous. If the information got into the wrong hands, even if it were not used for nefarious purposes, it could certainly be used to send so much junk mail that although it might be good for the economic prospects of the Post Office, it certainly would not be good in terms of the amount of paper engendered and the number of trees cut down.

That is just one way that I can think of in which such information could be used. I hope that it would not be, and I sincerely hope that the real purpose of the CORE project will be advanced securely and with good use of taxpayers’ money and careful regard for the information about individual citizens of this country that will be held in a central point. I seek those assurances merely because we would like to be able to support the Government’s new clause.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice 12:30, 18 November 2008

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady for managing to make so many generic points out of what is rather a modest little amendment to the CORE  provisions, enabling us to tackle fraud even more effectively than we are already tackling it, which I hope is an objective that all of us on the Committee share. None the less, she has raised some interesting points and I will briefly address them.

I start by gently pointing out to the hon. Lady that there may just be a contradiction between the various points that she has raised. On the one hand, she appears to be criticising us for what she described as delaying bringing CORE on stream. On the other hand, she said that she hoped that we would be extremely careful to ensure that money was well spent and that we took great care in ensuring that the data were stored securely. I would like to suggest to her tactfully that the reason that we are proceeding so cautiously and deliberately on this matter is precisely to ensure that we are spending the money to good effect and that the data is stored securely.

I am very happy to take the Committee’s time in explaining everything that we are doing, but very briefly I would like to point out to the hon. Lady that we are moving forward carefully. We are consulting 468 different electoral registration officers to ensure that they are in a position to store and move the data securely. We are spending the money carefully and I am very glad that she agrees that the money that we have spent so far has been well spent. We will continue to ensure that we get value for money.

The hon. Lady’s description of a list of Government failures was, if I may say so, misleading There is no question but that mistakes have been made in Government. Mistakes are also made in the private sector. Those mistakes involve the failure to achieve value for money, projects not coming to fruition in the way that they were originally conceived, and of course matters of data protection. It is a matter of record that the Government have made mistakes, but, as I say, mistakes also happen in the private sector, so I should be grateful if she would reflect on the fact that there is no evidence that the public sector is worse than the private sector in this regard, either in terms of great schemes that did not come to fruition in the way that they were originally conceived, after lots of money had been spent, or in the matter of data protection.

The most recent data losses in the public sector have taken place among private sector contractors working for Government. The real problem with this area is that the technology is moving so much faster than the managerial processes that are in place. I can absolutely assure the Committee that the Government are seized of this issue. In the last year, we have taken radical action to improve our processes. No one can ever guarantee that all data will always be secure, but we are doing our very best and we are certainly moving forward in relation to CORE.

I sense that you are getting slightly impatient about our straying beyond the remit of the clause, Sir Nicholas.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am happy to assure the Minister that I fully appreciate that, of course, mistakes occur in the private sector too, but he knows perfectly well that two wrongs do not make a right. Just because the private sector makes mistakes, and sometimes it makes mistakes on behalf of the Government, does not excuse the Government from the responsibility that they have to the taxpayer.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Order. We have covered this ground adequately. Perhaps the Minister can respond to the debate.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will, Sir Nicholas. I just want to say that I entirely agree with the hon. Lady; I was just seeking to correct a misleading impression that she was giving.

However, we have perhaps spent enough time on this particular amendment. I detect a consensus on it. I beg to move the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.