House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
AND OFFICE OF THE DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER:
housing, planning, local government AND THE regions committee
Tuesday 25 January 2005
MR SAM YOUNGER and MS PAMELA GORDON
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committee
on Tuesday 25 January 2005
Andrew Bennett, in the Chair
Mr A J Beith
Sir Paul Beresford
Mr Clive Betts
Mr David Clelland
Mrs Ann Cryer
Mr Bill O'Brien
Mr Adrian Sanders
Dr Alan Whitehead
Memorandum submitted by Electoral Commission
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mr Sam Younger, Chairman and Ms Pamela Gordon, Commissioner, Electoral Commission, examined.
Q1 Chairman: May I welcome you all to the first session of the joint committee, that is the ODPM and the Constitutional Affairs Select Committees, joint inquiry into electoral registration? May I just point out to you that the written evidence that we have received has been published this morning and is available from the Stationery Office at the cost of £13, but probably of more interest to most of you will be that you can actually look at it on the web, at a minimal cost I suppose of connection. May I welcome the two of you and ask you to identify yourselves for the record, please?
Mr Younger: Sam Younger, Chairman of the Electoral Commission.
Ms Gordon: Pamela Gordon, Electoral Commissioner.
Q2 Chairman: Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
Mr Younger: Happy, Chairman, for you to go straight to questions.
Q3 Mr Beith: In your written evidence, you refer both to the overriding principle that a right as fundamental as voting should only be secured by personal initiative, then, to a series of practical reasons which you say favour individual registration. If the practical reasons were shown not to stand up, indeed if it were shown for example that it would not be likely to increase participation and might have the opposite effect, would the reason of principle be an overriding one and would you stick to your view that it is a principle that people should register themselves?
Mr Younger: We do have to be very careful on this. Clearly, we have looked at it in terms of the principle and all the practical benefits that we think would flow from it. We have to be aware of the one area of experience that there has already been in this, in Northern Ireland, moving from household to individual registration. Clearly, there are some practical difficulties there. It seems to us we need to work through those, to see whether they can be overcome, so that you do not have essentially the opposite effect of that intended. The principle has to be the right one. If there were overriding reasons, then I think we would need to look at it again; it is something we need to be pragmatic about.
Q4 Mr Beith: Do you have any evidence that the current system is thought by people to be confusing or, conversely, that it is a trusted system that people are quite comfortable with?
Mr Younger: There is no evidence that people are uncomfortable with it. There is evidence that people have been able to use it and use it perfectly comfortably for very many years. What we were looking at was a case for change based on up-to-date issues of data protection rights and so on, but also, more practically, how we could improve both the security of postal voting in the first instance and then the ability of the registration system to support further developments in voting over time.
Q5 Mr Beith: How far was your interest driven by all-postal voting, with a piloting of it, or indeed using it more generally? There clearly are arguments relating to all-postal voting which strengthen the case for individual registration. If we do not go down the road of all-posting voting, does the case for individual registration weaken?
Mr Younger: The original review we did of registration was not based on all-posting voting, it was one of the reviews which came out of our report on the 2001 general election and was based on the fact that there had been postal voting on demand. Clearly the practical implications, and if the reasons are there to go for individual registration in terms of postal voting on demand, are even stronger in scale if you have all-postal voting. The principle of individual registration and the extra security in postal voting are applicable and whatever the future in terms of all-posting voting, the fact is that with postal voting on demand we are already up at what was 8.1 per cent of the electorate registered as postal voters in the elections last June and that must be a figure which is rising and it is a very significant number in any event. In our view, the argument there in general terms is there, whether or not there is all-postal voting.
Q6 Peter Bottomley: Can you remind us? In the United States I think they have generally individual registration. What is the proportion of potentially eligible voters who are registered?
Mr Younger: I do not have figures for the United States.
Q7 Peter Bottomley: Until I am contradicted, I put it to you that it is pretty low compared with us. Should not the overriding principle be that all potentially eligible voters should be registered and that there also ought then to be the principle that the individual voters can check that they are registered or get themselves off a register if there is inappropriate registration?
Mr Younger: That has to be the principle, yes.
Q8 Peter Bottomley: Both?
Mr Younger: Yes. Everybody who is eligible to be on the register should be on the register. The issue is how you best get to that and get to it in a way that also helps the security and the future of the voting system.
Q9 Chairman: If someone does not intend to vote, perhaps for religious reasons, is there a logic for them to be on the register?
Mr Younger: Of course in response to a request for information it is an offence not to provide that information or to provide false information. The number of prosecutions there are for failure to return information for the register is very, very small. In this case, in terms of voting, we have always had the principle up to now that voting is voluntary, but, up to now, there is an obligation to provide information that is requested for the register. So in theory it is actually an obligation to provide that information.
Q10 Peter Bottomley: And it is used for jury lists as well.
Mr Younger: Yes.
Q11 Chris Mole: You touched on the Northern Ireland experience. In your memorandum you seem rather reluctant to accept the significance in the fall in registration in Northern Ireland and you state in paragraph 4.10 "... the experience of introducing individual registration to Northern Ireland might suggest an initial impact of a drop in registration rates". How much do you feel the decline in the numbers on the electoral register in Northern Ireland since the introduction is due to a drop in registration rates, as opposed to other causes such as eradication of duplicate entries? Do you forecast that the drop will continue or that registration rates will return to previous levels?
Mr Younger: It is something we have to take very seriously. Clearly, there would have been an expectation when the register was cleaned in Northern Ireland in the context of the 2002 Electoral Fraud Act, that there would be a drop-off which would partly be the greater accuracy of that register, but that the increased requirements in terms of individuals putting their signature, having their date of birth, their national insurance number and so on would lead to an extra drop-off. The jury is still out on exactly where the proportion of those reasons is, but we do have to take it seriously and in the context of looking at the potential applicability to Great Britain, we do need to take that on board. I note what the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee said in their report that they did not think at this stage that that exact system should be ruled out to Great Britain and I think there is some force in that. However, the conditions are not exactly the same in Northern Ireland and in a sense, what we are currently discussing with government is how we can modernise that system of registration whilst taking into account the lessons that there certainly are from Northern Ireland and the analysis of those lessons is continuing.
Q12 Chris Mole: So what general lessons do you think we can learn from the Northern Ireland experience before introducing a similar system in Great Britain?
Mr Younger: One of the things in Great Britain relates to this issue of the carryover. It seems to me, though we have not pinned this down finally, that if one is to introduce it in Britain, because the reasons why we are introducing it are not exactly the same in Northern Ireland - that is a sort of once-off, where you are off the register if you do not fill in the individual registration form on day one - that may well not be right but something that is graded and gradual as you introduce a new system has to be something which is well worth exploring and it is important to explore that. There is also the question by comparison with Northern Ireland of the sort of identifiers. One of the issues in Northern Ireland was having to find the National Insurance number. Our view currently is that we would not need necessarily to do that in the rest of the UK. I would say that we have to be very careful. I very much recognise the fears that there are and I note very much that the government's response to our earlier recommendations on individual registration, which of course, in what was being responded to, pre-dated the experience in Northern Ireland, said that they were sympathetic to the principles of individual registration, but concerned about practical implementation. I think it is very, very fair point.
Q13 Chris Mole: Was that an approval of the rollover process that I though I detected there? I think the experience suggests that it is, as ever, the hard-to-reach groups which are the most likely to fall off the register. The Committee would be interested in hearing what strategies you have put in place to address that in Northern Ireland specifically. Did I hear you say you would welcome rollover coming back?
Mr Younger: Interestingly, in the context of Northern Ireland, we had some scepticism about rollover in the initial system in Northern Ireland, because the great thrust of the Fraud Act was to tidy up and clean up the register and it would have been in conflict with that purpose. Looking at the register in GB, I think we would say that you do need to find some kind of rollover and link that to the question ---
Q14 Chairman: Explain "rollover".
Mr Younger: This is not having a register which, as it were, starts from ground zero every year. In other words, people stay on it and only have to re-register periodically. In Northern Ireland, up to now, since 2002, if you do not re-register every single year, you are off the new register.
Q15 Chairman: So are talking about rollover for a year, two years or for ever?
Mr Younger: I do not have an absolutely fixed position, because these are the practicalities which we are getting into discussing now. I should have thought, in the context of GB, certainly not for ever. You need to have a way of cleaning up the register so that when people who, as it were, have not bothered to take themselves off because they have moved, gone away, whatever, you can do that.
Q16 Peter Bottomley: Died?
Mr Younger: Possibly. On the other hand, I think you need to have a period of grace. There is another reason, not just the fear of people dropping off the register, but also, and this relates to the promotion of getting people on the register, you have the issue that if you do take people off the register less frequently, in other words, you do not do the absolutely full 100 per cent annual canvass, some of the resources that we currently use for what is effectively repeat business of not very high value could be diverted a little bit more into trying to reach harder-to-reach groups. You could focus maybe more on those, which is a slightly separate issue. The effort of going to, taking the example of Northern Ireland, a full personal annual canvass when a very high percentage are people who are staying in the same place, is where the use of that resource is not necessarily of great value by comparison with the other ways those resources could be used.
Q17 Dr Whitehead: You mentioned a moment ago the recommendation that National Insurance numbers would not be necessary as far as individual registration in concerned in Great Britain. Why do you think that would not be necessary? In Northern Ireland various photo identity cards have been required and you make no mention of that as a possible individual identifier in Great Britain. Could you comment on that?
Mr Younger: Yes, certainly. When we looked at the registration process and made our recommendations for GB, which we did in the early part of the 2003, we were not particularly looking at the model of Northern Ireland, we were looking at what would, in the context of the GB register, be useful and valuable security and other identifiers. We felt that the addition of a date of birth and a voter signature was quite sufficient for the purposes that we were after. That is the reason that we did not wish to do that in Northern Ireland. I am sorry, the second part of your question was ...?
Q18 Dr Whitehead: The question of photo identity cards of various kinds. Four options were suggested in Northern Ireland.
Mr Younger: Again, we were looking at the development of the registration requirements as a matter of remote voting and in a sense the voter identity card is not a requirement of the registration process, it is a requirement of going and voting in a polling station, if you do not have other designated photo identification in Northern Ireland. It does raise an issue that we have not looked at yet very hard, and perhaps we should, which is, in the context of polling stations, what sort of identification should be required, because the tradition in this country is not to require any identification. There is no doubt that in the context of Northern Ireland, the photo identification has been something which has, in the Northern Ireland context, improved credibility to some extent in terms of those going in to vote in polling stations being who they say they are.
Ms Gordon: May I add something to that? We have also suggested that voters would be given a unique registration number for voting purposes. That obviously, looking to the future, would be an extra check and a vital check for any electronic voting, in the same way that the signature would provide for a cross-check based on a sample basis for postal voting. They are both security measures that we are suggesting. We have not thought it necessary to add the photographic evidence to those; not at this stage anyway.
Q19 Dr Whitehead: If you were in future to undertake individual registration by telephone or internet, you would not at that stage have a unique registration number. How would you deal with the security and possible fraud implications as far as that was concerned?
Ms Gordon: If it were introduced before there was individual registration. This is why we have seen the two things as needing to go together, because, for any form of electronic or remote voting, one is going to need to have identifiers which will be absolutely secure within whatever system is available. How one would do that outside individual registration becomes much more complicated, much less easy to see.
Q20 Dr Whitehead: The individual identifiers would arise after the registration process had taken place presumably and the question of possible fraud and identity theft would arise at the point of individual registration I assume.
Ms Gordon: A fraud in registering, yes.
Q21 Sir Paul Beresford: Presumably some of the potential identifications, such as the National Insurance number would not work for the individuals who come from Commonwealth countries and have a reciprocal right to vote.
Mr Younger: I guess that is right. What we have done up to now is thought in terms of the principle and what we are trying to achieve by it. In the practical implementation we put forward some thoughts, but are in discussion with government and others as to exactly what those should be in order to make sure we get a system that works within the context of those who are eligible to be on the register and to vote in this country.
Q22 Dr Whitehead: You mentioned the possibility in your evidence of the fact that, as far as household registration is concerned, it is possible obviously for the head of household filling the form in, either by accident or design, to omit household members or indeed add other household members. What evidence do you have of what level of inaccuracy there is and do you consider that with individual registration that particular issue of deliberate or accidental inaccuracy would be resolved?
Mr Younger: We have anecdotal evidence rather than exhaustively researched evidence that there are some levels of inaccuracy in the register. I do not think our evidence would suggest that the vast majority of these are other than mistakes, whether it is somebody putting on somebody who is not the right age, whether it is somebody who is of a nationality that does not have the right to vote. People getting forms through the door may return them because they are good citizens and if they are sent an official form they return it duly signed. The chances are, we would suggest, that if you do have individual registration, and each individual has to identify himself and make a signature, you are in the end going to get a more accurate register. The question is, and I think this is one of the key issues, whether it would be a more complete register. There, there would an awful lot of work to be done to make sure, which is exactly the issue at the heart of this, that, if you do move to a different system of registration, you maintain the maximum number of those entitled to vote on that register.
Q23 Chairman: The dog getting a polling card or the three-year-old getting a polling card appears to be fairly rare, so that it is a story for the local paper, is it not? If it were commonplace, it would not be a story.
Ms Gordon: I am glad to say that it is fairly rare, but I also have to say that it derives from the dog or whoever being entered onto the return.
Q24 Chairman: It is normal that the returning officer is blamed for it, whereas it should really be the householder.
Ms Gordon: Yes.
Q25 Mr O'Brien: May I press you on the implementation of the individual registration? In your written evidence, you have advised that a possible staged approach might include reducing the frequency of annual canvass. What plans have you developed for a phased approach to the implementation of individual registration? Over what period of time do you envisage this being introduced?
Mr Younger: As we mentioned before, we have not really pinned this down. There is a recognition, particularly looking at the experience of Northern Ireland and perhaps one would even have reached this conclusion without the experience of Northern Ireland, that a significant change to the system is one that you need to be very careful about, if you are not going to lose people off the register. Certainly much of the discussion of those who have been sceptical has been a very genuine worry, particularly parents who say "I fill in the form for my household and I put my 20-year-old and my 19-year-old on it as well as my wife and myself and I am afraid that if I did not do it, they would not get on". We have to deal with that, because that is very real. Making a staged approach, so that, whatever register we have at the time we move to individual registration, we do not, as it were, dump it overnight, but have a period of maybe two, maybe three years where you do not push people off the register who were on it before individual registration, has to be allied with a good deal more work on targeted campaigns to get people to be on the register. We have done a fair amount on this and it is interesting to note, and it is buried there somewhere in the evidence, that some of the areas which are the most successful are when you can really target, such as using the Royal Mail redirection service to target people who have moved house. Over the last six or eight months, that has brought 50,000-odd new registrations which we can source to that because of the means that we use to make the registration. There, we need to be a lot more sophisticated and in part, if one did move over time away from putting whatever resource is available overwhelmingly in a repeat annual canvass every year, but were more targeted about it with a full canvass less frequently than every year, perhaps every two, maybe every three, then one could have a real impact on that.
Q26 Adrian Sanders: The principle here is about the largest number of people being on a register. Now people move, and you give the example of using the redirection service, but when people move, even if they move out of area or within area, they are still on the register so they still have a vote, it is just the inconvenience of having to return or fix up a postal vote. Under the system of individual registration, they presumably would not still have that vote if they moved and did not then register in their new address.
Mr Younger: In theory that is possible and indeed may happen. That is part of the reason to think in terms of the carryover: that you pick up people who are moving house, you try to get them onto the register in the new place and take them off in the old. I think there are cases when somebody is known to have moved out of an area, where electoral registration officers (EROs), after a time, may take people off the register anyway. The problem is not non-existent now, but we have to be careful with individual registration. There, in a sense, the issue is not necessarily any different under individual registration. That depends on the length of the carryover; even now when people move house, they stay on the register until the period of carryover is finished.
Q27 Adrian Sanders: Some of the more transient groups are the people who do not have secure housing or are the very hard to reach groups at the moment.
Mr Younger: Yes, indeed. I think it is the case, depending on what the rules would be, that if they are once on the register in the first place, they are no less likely to remain on the register under individual registration than they are under household. The question is, once somebody is on the register, over what period you take them off if they have not re-registered. This in a sense is part of the experience of Northern Ireland that is worried about losing people you should not be losing if you force them off the register if they do not re-register that immediate following year and looking at doing that over a longer period, which is what the government has expressed the intention of doing now.
Q28 Mr O'Brien: In the transition period to which we referred, how would you approach the question of accuracy and coverage of the register? How would you address the problems which could develop from people having different views as to how they should register, like a parent registering or pressing their children to register? Do you envisage any other problems and how would you deal with them?
Mr Younger: In moving from any system that has been there for many years to any sort of new system, you have to recognise that there will be problems and there certainly will be and there will certainly be people who might have been registered by a parent or other member of the family who will not immediately be registered. That is a matter above all of a) the staged process but b) the targeting of campaigns to encourage people to get on the register. That is what the key to it is and in saying all of that, I certainly would not want to minimise some of the problems that there might be. The pluses of individual registration are real and are worth achieving, but we need to make sure we are pragmatic enough to look at making sure that we do that ---
Q29 Mr O'Brien: What problems have you witnessed with the Northern Ireland procedure?
Mr Younger: The problems with the Northern Ireland procedure have been that there have been quite significant numbers of people lost off the register, not just in year one, but then some more, a more modest number, in year two. There the problem has been traced first, which we would not run into if we applied this system within the rest of Great Britain, to knocking people off the register if they have not re-registered after year one. Also there are people who do not want to go through giving their details endlessly to authority of one kind or another. There are various reasons people might not give their details: whether because they are transient, whether because they have a reluctance to put into any official form, a National Insurance number, or a date of birth or whatever it is, whether in the context of Northern Ireland with rolling registration you are actually being asked to go to a hearing, which is not something that happens ---
Q30 Mr O'Brien: So you are still dealing with some of the problems in Northern Ireland are you?
Mr Younger: We have an interest in it. Clearly the responsibility for registration in Northern Ireland rests with the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland. We support that office in terms of publicity and registration campaigns to get people to understand the requirements and to register.
Q31 Mr O'Brien: In your report of 2003, The Electoral Registration Process, you recommended the retention of annual canvass as an interim measure. What should replace it and on what timescale?
Mr Younger: When we did that report, one possibility we did have in mind was to say perhaps we did not need the annual canvass, perhaps it should be every two years, every three years, we had not defined a particular amount of time, and use the resource, say, as I have mentioned before, to target registration campaigns at harder-to-reach groups. In fact it was in discussions and feedback from the political parties that there was an anxiety at that stage about moving away from the annual canvass and we felt that we had not sufficiently thought through how that might be done to recommend dispensing with the annual canvass just like that. Increasingly, and looking at the experience of Northern Ireland, there is a good case for re-orienting the kind of resources that you use and actually only doing a full canvass on a less regular basis than every year and using that resource to target your ---
Q32 Chairman: Why do you have to do it less frequently than every year? Is there not a logic in not doing it at all and simply concentrating all the effort on the people who move? I have lived in the same house for 25 years and have filled in the form for 24 of them, as a pretty pointless exercise, have I not?
Ms Gordon: In our report we did indicate that there could well be an argument for some flexibility on a local basis. The average movement, as I understand it, of households last year was 13 per cent across the whole of the country and that varies enormously between people like the Chairman who have stayed for a long time in one house and inner city areas where there is considerable movement. I think individual registration officers would wish to take a very different approach, depending on their local circumstances. There are also very particular circumstances about the considerable areas where there are large numbers of students, where obviously there is already a big problem of registration which, if anything, is being compounded, we understand again from anecdotal evidence, because of wardens of halls of residence and so on being unhappy about having to register students individually on a composite return because of human rights issues. So there are already in the current system a number of problems which will need to be addressed which could be addressed through the proposals that we are making.
Q33 Mr Beith: You are looking at this from the standpoint of getting people onto the register, but what is there, as an alternative to the national canvass, for stopping people being on the register who should not be on the register? We were reminded us in a memorandum of evidence that a national newspaper registered somebody called Mr Gus Troobev, which is an anagram for bogus voter, in 31 constituencies; his name actually appeared on the electoral register in 31 constituencies, even though he was an entirely bogus character. What alternative is there to the annual canvass to vet these things?
Mr Younger: There are two or three possibilities. One, if you once moved to a system where there are more individual identifiers, you are less likely to have those kind of bogus registrations; less, but it is not out of the question. Secondly, we have also made a proposition in that earlier report which said there should be a right for and indeed an obligation on electoral registration officers themselves to challenge and follow up registrations which they think might be bogus. It is not there at the moment, it is on receipt of an objection from somewhere else that they act and I think there is a case for a much more proactive role for registration officers on the register. The third element is probably the answer to the question of whether you need an annual canvass at all. A periodic canvass, that is a full canvass, that tries to make sure you update, clean up the register, is something that there should be. I very much also take the Chairman's point that there is a very high percentage of those in the annual canvass which is simply a repeat of exactly the same details that were given a year before.
Q34 Mr O'Brien: Do you think a targeted audit procedure would be better, replacing the existing system?
Mr Younger: My sense would be that any auditing system would probably include a periodic complete audit. The issue would be what period would be the right one: whether it would be two years, three years, whether it might be once in every electoral cycle which is likely to be every four to five years. I think that would be part of it. I think the other is the targeting, particularly at making sure that those under-registered groups are on. One point I think we need to be careful of there, one of the reasons historically why individual local authorities have been reluctant to get involved in a great deal of targeted canvassing for people on the register, is a fear of getting pulled into what could become political issues in terms of where that targeting is and how you carry it out. One needs to recognise that. Given the position local authorities can be in, in terms of understanding the people in their patch, there is a case in a coherent and thought-through way to have more targeted registration campaigning.
Q35 Mr O'Brien: The current electoral register is based on addresses grouped in parliamentary constituencies. What would be the basis for the register formed from individual registrations?
Mr Younger: Initially, though obviously if the system were to be changed then there is a chance to review everything, I would not necessarily think there was any reason to change the unit of account; there is no need for that. One of the enablers of individual registration, particularly once you have individual identifiers and particularly, which we have not mentioned yet, once you have a register which is electronically maintained to common standards and which can be interrogated, is that you have a possibility then of people, for example, being able to vote outside of a particular polling station, because you have a linked-up system. That is actually a little bit further down the road, but I do not think there is an immediate reason why moving from one basis of registration to another would change the geographical unit on which you would need to base a register.
Q36 Mr O'Brien: Finally, may I just press you on the constituency size and combination? This is an issue that you and I discussed a few months ago. Would it be possible under individual registration to base constituency sizes on the combination of census and electoral registration figures, rather than electoral figures alone? Taking the census into consideration.
Mr Younger: I would need notice to answer that question at all coherently. As I understand it, the basis on which parliamentary constituency boundaries are done is set out in legislation and there is obviously a case after a cycle of looking at the legislation. Perhaps one other thing ---
Q37 Chairman: Wait a minute; come on. This is fairly fundamental to this inquiry, is it not? There is a bit of panic from some members of parliament, that if you went to individual registration and you got under-representation, you could end up with a constituency which allegedly had 70,000 people on the register, but in practice there were 80,000 adults. Your case work might well go up considerably and over a period of time it would skew the political representation in here, would it not, because there is a fair chance that the under-representation might be people who in the end will vote for one particular political party. Surely you ought to have some view as to whether, if you went for individual registration, we would need to look at a different way of measuring the size of constituencies, perhaps combining registration and census figures; not that they have got it right particularly recently.
Mr Younger: It is a very legitimate point, but it is not one that I have a particular answer to, because the parliamentary process is separate. Clearly there is a link, as the register is developed, to make sure that we finish up with constituencies which are on the fairest possible basis.
Q38 Mr O'Brien: This was one of the points I raised with you when we were looking at constituency changes. There is evidence to show that in many constituencies, taking into consideration the 2003 register of electors, it has identified that those figures for the electorate are 10 per cent below the census figures for people over 18. Now surely that is the kind of evidence that we should be looking at to make sure that the constituency boundaries are based on a more fair and open system than just on the electoral system. Do you not agree?
Mr Younger: You make a strong point. It is not something we have looked at in the context of this and of course we do not have any responsibilities in the areas of parliamentary boundaries; that is something very much to look to for the future and it is not directly linked to individual versus household registration. In a sense it may be that if it were the case that the scale of under-registration of people who should be on the register would be significant if you moved to individual registration, then we have in practical terms to look at whether we have it right and whether that is the right system to go to. That said, I think there clearly is an issue of making sure that we have parliamentary constituency boundaries which are fair and coherent. But that is for the future.
Q39 Mr Clelland: What about the poor old electoral registration officers in all of this? Have you done any research into what assistance they might require in order to ensure best coverage of the register? Do you have any recommendations on levels of reminders and checking of returns?
Ms Gordon: We would want to work through the details of any proposal that was agreed by government, very much involving the electoral registration officers. They have given us a lot of observations so far, because obviously it is their practical experience that we are depending on. We are on record as regarding the registration service historically as having been a Cinderella service of local government and they do need greater resources to carry forward some of these additional burdens that are being laid on them with individual registration, as there have been with other developments in elections. So there would be a resource implication, but it would be largely a transitional one, as would be the case in introducing any new system. The other dimension of this, which we would regard as important from the local authority point of view, from the returning officer's responsibility, would be to carry out wider local public awareness campaigns alongside what the Commission does at a national level. That is particularly relevant where there are local circumstances and particularly hard-to-reach groups in a locality. This, again, is an issue we have drawn attention to because not all returning officers or registration officers are comfortable with the idea of mounting such campaigns. We should like greater clarity as to their ability to do this.
Q40 Mr Clelland: These are the promotional campaigns you talked about in your report The Electoral Registration Process.
Ms Gordon: Yes.
Q41 Mr Clelland: So you see a role for the electoral registration officers in running these promotional campaigns.
Ms Gordon: Yes.
Q42 Mr Clelland: You feel they are perhaps not comfortable with this. How are going to convince them that this is a good idea?
Ms Gordon: Many of them are comfortable; many of them do a great deal and that is very welcome and no doubt has a considerable effect. Others, for a variety of reasons, feel it is outside their role and they really need some certainty that it is seen by government to clarify the legislation as part of their role, that they are entitled to do this and that they should be able to do it, irrespective of any political views that there might be among the members of their council.
Q43 Mr Clelland: Do you think there might be scope for introducing some sort of incentives, either sticks or carrots, for the individual to register?
Ms Gordon: This is a difficult one because many people will say that traditionally it is a citizen's duty to do what is required and obviously that has some strength. On the other hand, there have been experiments to encourage people to meet the requirements laid on them and it is an area worth looking at further as we work through the practicalities.
Q44 Mr Clelland: You talk about resources. If or when we move from the present system to a system of individual registration, how much is this all going to cost and who is going to pay for it?
Mr Younger: The general background to this is that we have been on record for some time saying that electoral registration services generally have been under-funded in very many areas; that is the general background. In terms of individual registration, there would be an initial transitional cost as there would be in any of these things, but in an ongoing sense, one of the things of looking at the mix of factors you would have, perhaps not having an annual canvass in the same way that we have had historically would release resources within even the current pot to enable more targeted registration campaigns. That is not to say that we would not, as I suspect many others would, say there would be value in putting more resources than are currently there into the process of making sure those who should be on the electoral register are. I do recognise that there are elements of our system which are a system which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and which do require more resources. You see, for example, not thinking for the moment about all-postal voting, that the rise of postal voting does mean that there are more resource pressures on registration officers. In the context of individual registration, if you had an individual signature, that is not only important at the point of registration but, in postal voting terms, it gives you something against which you can check the incoming postal vote. Well that needs somebody to do it, so there are resource implications there as well. I do think that is part and parcel of making sure we have a system which is fit for the kind of democracy we are in the future.
Q45 Mrs Cryer: Should we move to individual registration, what sort of impact do you think this would have on hard-to-reach groups, such as young people, which Ms Gordon has already touched on, as far as students are concerned and ethnic minority groups? May I just suggest to you that my constituency of Keighley is in the Bradford district and 50 per cent of the fairly large Bangladeshi and Pakistani community do not speak any English and very many of that group are illiterate in their mother tongue, so I think we are probably back to promoting registration.
Mr Younger: In a sense the picture you paint is precisely the reason why, we would entirely respect those views which say we have to be very careful with moving to individual registration in terms of not losing people who should be on the register and are not. Part of the problem you describe was something which was there with household registration as well. I can only say that the answer must lie in being much more targeted and much more determined in the campaign to get people onto the register. I would not want to predict how that would go, but I do think one of the important things is that if we are going to move from one system of registration to another, we should not be doing it without an adequate resource to make sure it can be done properly.
Q46 Peter Bottomley: I think the group of people who are the least represented as potential voters absent from registration are British citizens living abroad. I put it to you that it may be that 97 per cent of the potentially eligible voters, say in Majorca, are not registered. Who do you think has responsibility, under the present system, of getting them registered and who do you think would have the responsibility under a future system of having them registered?
Mr Younger: First of all, the small number of overseas voters registered is something that is pretty clearly the case. The latest figures we have show a very, very small number of a population of potential overseas voters, of which we are not quite sure, because there are estimates of up to 13 million British people living abroad, how many actually have the right to vote, how many of them are under age and so on; anyway, the number of them registered is very small. Clearly, in terms of registering to vote, the first responsibility under the present system and under any future system will be with the voter him or herself to get on the register. Organisations like mine, just as a local authority, have a role in encouraging people to get on the register; that is both a matter of advertising that they have the right to be on the register and making it as easy as possible for them to get on the register. In the case of overseas voters, interestingly, it is an issue that did not get raised by anybody in the context of the 2001 general election. It has been raised since, it is something we have looked at, we have developed materials, developed our own website to make it easier for people, doing targeted advertising alongside our registration campaigns in the UK. It is a very real issue. Of course voters around the world outside Britain are even more difficult to get at in any coherent sense than voters in Britain.
Q47 Peter Bottomley: So you are not satisfied with the present situation.
Mr Younger: No, I do not think one can be satisfied with a large number of people who have the right to be registered to vote and a very small proportion of them are actually registered from the evidence we have.
Q48 Peter Bottomley: Chairman, is this not the one example of where there is individual registration opportunity, there is no householder registration? Does it not show that there is potentially a very grave danger in moving to individual registration?
Mr Younger: I would not see the two as necessarily connected. I suspect the dynamics of people in terms of registration when they move abroad are very different from the dynamics when they are at home. I have not done any research into it, but I do not think you could make a direct read-across.
Q49 Mrs Cryer: Should we move to individual registration, what sort of recommendations would you be making to registration officers regarding disabled people, getting those people on the register and, also, those people who are in long-term hospital care or residential care?
Ms Gordon: May I answer the last part first? We actually think there would be advantages for people in residential care, as indeed in student accommodation, in having individual registration, not least because it would answer a concern which is sometimes expressed that there is an opportunity for fraud there for people; it applies at the voting stage as well, but it applies at registration, as to how the registration is done. We would see advantages there in registering people individually. Sorry, please remind of the first part of your question.
Q50 Mrs Cryer: The first part was about individual registration for disabled people, the disabled people who may be blind or whatever but who live at home.
Ms Gordon: We would see individual registration, especially when combined with a national electronic register, as offering more opportunities for people with a variety of disabilities to register in different ways. At the moment, there is only the paper-based method. There would be an opportunity with a different system for people to use electronic means or to develop the telephone system, which at the moment is only operated by a few authorities and then only if there is no change in the registration. Once one has got some individual identifiers as a security check, people would be able to use the telephone as well. We see it as offering great advantage for people with disabilities.
Mr Younger: The other element with individual registration is that if we were to move to individual registration or a system where there is a common format for registration right across the country, it would make it easier to provide the ability to register in different formats. Probably in terms of people with all sorts of issues with registering conventionally, whatever they are, one of the big opportunities would be when we can move down the road of electronics, whether by voice, sight, whatever, when different languages, for example, would be much easier to handle.
Q51 Mrs Cryer: What are the terms of reference of your current research into existing non-registration? Can you give us an interim report on its findings? How do you expect the results to inform your strategies on encouraging registration under a system of individual registration?
Mr Younger: We have a significant project under way at the moment in terms of understanding the causes of under-registration. There have been bits and pieces coming out of all sorts of bit of research, including research in Northern Ireland, though the conditions there are slightly different from much of the rest of GB. Certainly the point of doing that is precisely to inform any future strategy, not just that we might have, to encourage registration but also the local authorities might have. We have made some suggestions for things our local authorities might do in the past, but we are looking to this research, which I think I am right in saying we should be completing some time in the course of this year, really to inform the future. Whether under individual registration or, to be honest, even if it were the existing system, a lot of the same considerations would apply.
Q52 Chairman: When is that likely to be in the public domain then?
Mr Younger: I would rather, if I may, come back to the Committee to state that; I am not wholly sure.
Q53 Mrs Cryer: In the Bradford district, we seem to have the anomaly of an ever-shrinking register. Every time we have a new register, it is smaller and smaller; I wonder where it is going to end. I just wondered whether you already have an idea about addressing that by positive action by electoral registration officers.
Mr Younger: Yes, as a general proposition, but we would need to look a bit further at the precise tools that might be used. Again, part of what we are doing is looking also at practice in individual local authorities and particularly in the context of the analysis that is currently under way of, for example, the December 2004 register and looking at where there have been decreases and where there might have been increases. We do not have the figures yet, but there will be some local authorities in which there will be increases. Part of it will be looking at those and wondering whether there is something those authorities are doing that others could be copying. Generally speaking, in electoral administration over the years we have not been very good at learning from experience elsewhere. It is an opportunity provided by the creation of the Commission as a central body, as a sort of clearing house, to try to get where the good experience and good practice is and help it get elsewhere.
Q54 Mr Betts: You may or may not be aware that some members of the ODPM Select Committee visited Australia recently, amongst other places. One of the things we went to look at was electoral registration. When we were there, the Electoral Commission looked rather bemused and said "Do you mean you actually chase up people on a yearly basis, send them forms and then canvass them even when they have not moved house?" which comes back to the Chairman's point on this. "We spend all our resources chasing up the people we know have moved and where there has been a change in their situation". The reason they can do that is that there are several bodies, the postal authorities, the utility companies, the driving licence authorities, who are all obliged to tell the Electoral Commission when someone moves their address. Do you think that is the sort of approach we should adopt in this country?
Mr Younger: There are two parts to it. One is the discussion we have already had about the degree to which an annual canvass is the right thing to do or not. In terms of the more targeted stuff, certainly the early experience we have had is that there is real value in targeted campaigning, whether it is of home movers through postal redirection, whether it is mortgage companies. We have been looking at that and there is a role there, both for us as an organisation and for local authorities and this is precisely the kind of thing that we need to join up much better than it has been joined up in the past, whatever system of registration we are with.
Q55 Mr Betts: And if we need changes to data protection legislation to achieve that, would you support that?
Ms Gordon: This is clearly one of the inhibitions at the moment and people raise this. They assume when they move house and they are signed up for council tax, that the information will go directly across to the registration officer. Of course that does not happen largely and there is some confusion about what is permitted under data protection and what is not. Some of this could be addressed, if it were made clear. Clearly it would have to be demonstrated to the individual that by signing up for one thing, they were signing up for another, but there ought to be ways of doing this and that would, no doubt, be helpful.
Q56 Mr Betts: Taking things a stage further, and it goes back to this point where I think you are right that individuals, when they sign up information to one bit of the system, assume that other bits get it and they do not know why they are being asked for it several times, if we move to a comprehensive system of national identity cards, should that information be automatically transferable? Do we not effectively have electoral registration lists there for us?
Mr Younger: The conclusion must be, were you to have compulsory national identity cards, that they could provide a basis for an electoral register. It is not something we have looked into with any great ---
Q57 Mr Betts: Is it something you think people would like to look into, given the way that that legislation is going, so we do not end up with a complete duplication and people again getting rather fed up because they are going to give two lots of information for different purposes, when they could actually have given the same information in through one channel?
Mr Younger: I would not want to pour a lot of our own resource into anticipating what parliament is going to do. If it looked as though there were going to be national identity cards, clearly we would have to look at the impact that would have in terms of electoral registration and it would be real.
Q58 Mr Betts: I was just going to ask about the CORE project and whether you thought that actually was going to deliver and what sort of timescale you thought it was going to deliver on? I understand we are waiting for a strategy paper from government on this, but I think you essentially said that until that is working, individual registration would be very difficult.
Mr Younger: The CORE project is a vital first stage towards individual registration. It is also vital in terms of the needs right now, the needs not just of the Commission, but also critically of the political parties to be able to undertake their obligations under current legislation, in terms of the declaration of donations, in terms of being able to assure themselves that donors are on the electoral register.
Q59 Chairman: It is needed now but it is very much pending, is that it?
Mr Younger: Yes, that is an accurate summary.
Chairman: On that note may I thank you very much indeed for your evidence. Thank you. Can we have the next set of witnesses, please?
Memorandum submitted by Information Commissioner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mr Francis Aldhouse, Deputy Information Commissioner and Mr Jonathan Bamford, Assistant Commissioner, Information Commissioner, examined.
Q60 Chairman: May I welcome you to the second session this afternoon? May I ask you to identify yourselves for the record?
Mr Aldhouse: Chairman, I am Francis Aldhouse. I am one of the two Deputy Information Commissioners and I have with me, Jonathan Bamford, one of the Assistant Commissioners who specialises in some of this work.
Q61 Chairman: Do you want to say anything by way of introduction, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
Mr Aldhouse: May I just say something very briefly by way of introduction? The first is to thank you and the two committees for the opportunity to give evidence and the second is to extend to you the apologies of the Commissioner for being unable to be present himself. When the invitation to give evidence came to us, the Commissioner was already committed to give evidence yesterday to the Education and Skills Committee and he felt that he could not properly do justice to your work by cramming the two together so he asked me if I would undertake the duty. I hope that I am able to help you adequately.
Q62 Mr O'Brien: As you know, we are looking at individual registration. Do you believe that making individuals responsible for their own electoral registration is the right principle?
Mr Aldhouse: In principle we are strong supporters of individual registration, from a data protection point of view. The idea is that if you are collecting information about individuals, you should, whenever possible, try to obtain it from that individual; you are obtaining it from a more reliable source. We do recognise - and I listened to the previous evidence from the Electoral Commission - that there are other issues to be taken into account. I can try to help you about how to weigh the data protection issues; I do not say that they should prevail.
Q63 Mr O'Brien: Moving away from the household submission for registration to individual registration, does this raise any particular problems for data protection? Would you require any additional safeguards for individual registration over the household registration?
Mr Aldhouse: That is why I said that this is a complex matter where you have to weigh things. Yes, one of the issues would be what sort of identification was required when somebody registered. At the moment, I suppose the assurance an electoral registration officer has is that a household is a reasonably fixed entity based on a location and, by other means, you can usually identify who the senior person is who says he or she is the householder. There is a difficulty if an individual gets in touch with the electoral registration officer by whatever future means are contemplated and what assurances will be required that this is a genuine individual entitled to be on the register. That still needs to be thought through to safeguard as much as anything the democratic process, rather than the specific individual. Accurate identification is a data protection need.
Q64 Mr O'Brien: Could I just press you on a matter which was submitted in your written evidence, paragraph 14? When you referred to the move from the household to the individual registration, and I quote, you said "This would in effect constitute a compulsion for individuals to provide information about themselves, and therefore to appear on the electoral register, with the likely effect that the information would be more accurate. The benefits of the most complete electoral registration in a democratic society carry great weight. Parliament might wish to count these benefits more highly than the loss of individual freedom caused by compulsion". Are you referring to compulsory registration there?
Mr Aldhouse: We are assuming that registration would be compulsory, just as, in a sense, it is at the moment in that householders are bound by law to make a return. We are assuming that there would be a similar duty on individuals. Looked at from a purely narrow data protection point of view, requiring individuals to give information about themselves is an important issue which has to be thought about. It might well be that the democratic process is so important that it should be done in this case. That is why we put it the way that we did in the paper.
Q65 Mr O'Brien: But it is not an offence now if the head of the household, or whoever completes the forms, does not provide all the information. Are you saying that it should be an offence if all the information being sought by the electoral registration officer is not provided?
Mr Aldhouse: We have not constructed a specific offence. It is of course a duty on the householder to make a return when canvassed and we had assumed that, by analogy, such a duty would fall on the individual. Of course it would have slightly different consequences, but if our assumption were correct, then it would in effect mean that the individual was bound to make an accurate return about him or herself and one should weigh whether that is the right course to adopt. We suggest to you that you might think that it is right, even though it is a strong form of individual compulsion.
Q66 Mr Clelland: The Commissioner is apparently a fan of on-line and telephone registration under certain circumstances. Should a paper-based system ever become solely electronic? Could you say something to the Committee about the advantages and disadvantages of each, in data protection terms?
Mr Aldhouse: The reason why we are supporters of electronic and new technology ways of collecting information, I suppose goes back to the origins of data protections in that they were safeguards for individuals in a new technology world and we certainly do not believe that data protection is a reason why you should not adopt new technology ways of achieving these old processes. Indeed, if the safeguards are adequate, it should make it possible to adopt these new means. That, as it were, is a philosophical standpoint that yes, in the way that you put it, we are a fan of these new methods. The problems in this context of the new methods will be as much as anything to do with the fact that we are talking about individual rather than household returns and issues about the identification of the individual. I suspect that that will prove to be the most difficult issue. How do you identify individuals at a distance through electronic communication means? Some of this is dependent on other issues. If we were to go the route in this country of identity cards with chips on them, then one could contemplate a technology which would provide on-line identification. There are other ways of providing on-line authentication: the sort of systems which have been adopted by the Inland Revenue, for example.
Q67 Mr Clelland: I am sorry for interrupting you, but we understand all the possibilities of technology. What we are concerned about from your point of view is the data protection implications involved in this.
Mr Aldhouse: The data protection implications are that you should identify people as well as you can. It is important that you identify people well, partly to protect their identities and partly to avoid identity theft. That is probably the principal implication is this case. The other important element I am reluctant to claim as a data protection issue is the accuracy of the register. You would probably want to see that as a democratic issue rather than specifically a data protection issue.
Q68 Mr Clelland: For instance, what security safeguards and what checking procedures could be used in order to allow telephone registration?
Mr Aldhouse: We have not set about constructing a way of implementing a system. We could point to systems used by other people, such as, for example, those who run telephone banking. I was talking about the sort of system used by the Inland Revenue, where you have user identification and passwords. Whether these are appropriate in the particular context, particularly bearing in mind the issues I know the Committees are anxious about of disadvantaged groups, might be debatable. One could construct security measures. We have not actually set out to do that yet.
Q69 Mr Clelland: So despite the fact that the Commissioner and the Commission have made it clear that they are in favour of on-line and telephone registration, you do not seem to have looked very deeply into what the security implications of that might be.
Mr Aldhouse: We are, in principle, in favour. We do not think that the security issues as such are distinguishable from the identification issues. They are issues which are the subject of fairly extensive debate at the moment in technical IT circles. We would not see it as our job to construct a system.
Q70 Mr Clelland: What about people who are unable to register unaided and need to give information to a third party in order to register individually? What are the implications of that in data protection terms?
Mr Aldhouse: We see that as perfectly legitimate. In principle there is no data protection problem about using anyone as an agent to help you. You could construct scenarios in which the information was abused by the person to whom it was given to help, but I cannot say that we are greatly anxious about that. This is an issue which arises in many circumstances and it is perfectly acceptable from a data protection point of view to ask somebody to help you.
Q71 Adrian Sanders: In your evidence you support anonymous registration, comparing it to telephone subscribers choosing to opt out of the phonebook. Is there not a problem there in balancing your requirements for public scrutiny of the register with the rights of individuals who do not wish to have their records recorded?
Mr Aldhouse: On reflection, I wish we had perhaps not used that example. I think we made it clear in our evidence, at least in the conclusion, that we do not believe that full anonymisation is possible, nor indeed proper. At the end of the day, you, the individual, have somehow or other got to demonstrate to the electoral registration officer that you are entitled to vote and be on the register. We believe that there are several classes of people who have a very good claim to protect their address. You can think of those who are perhaps the subject of a witness protection programme or battered wives or others who are trying to hide their address entirely legitimately. We really quite strongly believe that there is an argument for seeking to protect them by what would be pseudonymous registration. They would register under some code or something like that, but some means of keeping off the publicly available register the name linked to the address of these people who do have a good claim for protection. That has consequences, because once you create a group like that, that information of itself has a value, has importance and needs to be protected. In the light of our experience, we know that there are investigators out there who would be trying to obtain the information.
Q72 Adrian Sanders: Are there any other types other than the ones you have described for trying to enhance the privacy of people other than setting p a category of people which could eventually be identified? Is the reality actually not that there is no answer to this question?
Mr Aldhouse: There is not a cut-and-dried answer. It is a case where you have to weigh considerations. I can try to help the Committee, as I do not think it is for the Information Commissioner to force a view on you. We do think that the categories I mentioned look as though they are very good candidates. You might well take the view that those who just do not wish to be on the public register, just as they do not wish to be in the telephone directory, are at the weaker end of the case. It depends how the register is used. This comes to a general position of the Commissioner that the electoral register exists to assist the electoral process and our democratic processes. It should be used for that purpose and only for other purposes where strictly necessary and justifiably so.
Q73 Adrian Sanders: If that is the case, if your view is that the electoral register is there for electoral purposes first and foremost, then surely people who do not engage in the electoral process, Jehovah's Witnesses for example, have a complete right not to be upon the electoral register.
Mr Aldhouse: That might be so. We would not want to express a view on that, because it is not particularly a data protection issue. I could well see how that position could be maintained and we would certainly not see anything objectionable about it in data protection terms. You might well see it as assisting some other issues, but I do not think the Commissioner has a data protection viewpoint on that particular matter.
Q74 Adrian Sanders: We have a restricted register at the moment and under freedom of information legislation, the public do not have access to it. Should the freedom of information legislation be amended to allow the public the right to look at the restricted electoral register?
Mr Aldhouse: Freedom of information legislation of course is another balanced piece of legislation with a general principle and a large number of examples. There are some very good reasons why the restricted information is kept restricted. I would not want to argue to you today that those restrictions should be abandoned.
Q75 Chairman: Is it really kept restricted? As I understand it, any political party has a right to see the full list, do they not? So presumably, if you decide to stand as an independent in an election, you have the right to see the full list.
Mr Aldhouse: Chairman, you are doing two things: you are taxing my knowledge of electoral law beyond its capacity and strength and, secondly, you have raised one of the inherent difficulties. Yes, a lot of the practices about access to the electoral register can be worked round and of course there is some anxiety given the position we have taken, which I expressed earlier.
Q76 Mr Clelland: Without going into any of the complexities of the electoral law, do you have any difficulties in principle, if there is going to be a requirement on electors to give personal information such as their date of birth, their National Insurance number, addresses and signatures in order to be registered? What safeguards should exist in order to protect the rights of individual in those circumstances?
Mr Aldhouse: These safeguards that I am going to mention are based on classic data protection approaches. The first safeguard is why you want the information, what the purpose is and it is to construct an electoral register. You have a narrow purpose and that enables you to minimise the amount of information you need to construct the register. You do not obtain information because it might come in handy or because it might be convenient for some other secondary distant user of the register. The sort of information which you are talking about is potential information to help identify the individual more accurately; that might be necessary. Is it necessary to keep it on the register itself? That is another issue: it does not necessarily have to be there. I think that that would be the way we would go about suggesting safeguards, that is: narrowness of purpose, minimisation of the information and minimising the information that appears on the public register and, as a sort of corollary of that, adequate security safeguards and access rules about obtaining the remaining information.
Q77 Sir Paul Beresford: Evidence from one interested group in this particular area says that there is an opportunity for scope for additional information to be stored on that database. In other words, rather than just going for the minimum required information, they look for somewhat more. Have you any thoughts on that?
Mr Aldhouse: Wrong in principle from a data protection point of view.
Q78 Mr Clelland: If a requirement were introduced for pin numbers, signatures or photo cards, what would be the key issues that would have to be considered?
Mr Aldhouse: I am sorry, but I think I end up repeating myself because it does not necessarily matter what specific information it is. The question you would have to ask is: given the limited purpose and trying to make the purpose as narrow as possible, do we really need this information? It might be that you take a balanced view about what is necessary, what is proportionate in order to identify the individuals. You suggested a pin number system, perhaps a new system like that would be necessary. In that case, I think we would be saying: how is this information going to be stored, is there a risk of it becoming available so it permits another form of identity theft and it permits people to quote this number and people will tend to assume that the person quoting the number is indeed the person to whom it refers, as has happened with pin number systems abroad? However, it is very difficult to construct a system or a set of rules in isolation from a specific proposal for a system.
Q79 Chairman: I cannot remember my pin number from one week to the next when I use it for my credit card. How would someone really be able to remember their pin number if they only voted once a year?
Mr Aldhouse: Chairman, I am not trying to urge upon you a pin number system. I was merely trying to respond to the suggestion that this might be one way of doing things. The issues does arise about the practicalities of that and if you did have a pin number system, is that in order to assist the voting process when someone has actually got onto the register, or how would it actually relate to identifying the individuals in order for them to get onto the register? For that, you need to look at other information. Here at the moment we are faced with a difficulty, a certain circularity. One of the principal elements in identifying individuals at the moment is the electoral register. I do not think either we in the Information Commissioner's office or others have yet properly addressed how we are going to avoid that circularity.
Q80 Mr Clelland: That is very interesting. For an organisation which, at the outset you said, seemed fairly keen on the idea of new technology and new ways of doing things, you do not seem to have thought through very clearly what the implications of all this are in security terms.
Mr Aldhouse: I think I said that we are committed, as a general approach, to try to encourage and use the new technologies. It is extremely difficult for us to propound a specific set of security controls in the absence of a specifically designed system. We would be extremely reluctant to propound the system. We can comment on the sorts of considerations that people might bear in mind and the security ones are not actually very different from the points that I was making about identification of the individual and how you would seek to protect the information.
Q81 Mr Betts: In some countries such as Australia, they use other data sources, the postal authorities, the registration of deaths, the licensing authorities and utility companies, to provide the Electoral Commission with information about people's change of address so the Commission can then follow them up, hopefully to update and keep accurate the register. In your opinion, would it be proper to use any other data sources like these or National Insurance or council tax information to keep our registers up to date. If it would not, would you be prepared to support any changes of legislation to allow that to be the case? Whether you would or would not support change of legislation, what safeguards would you be looking at, if that were the way parliament chose to go?
Mr Aldhouse: This is an issue which, some time ago, the Cabinet Office looked at and more recently, the Department for Constitutional Affairs have been looking at, that is the question of data sharing between government departments for different purposes. We certainly do not say on data protection grounds that information should never be shared. We do start from the point of view that in order to protect individuals, you should collect information for a specific purpose and confine it to that purpose, but there are sometimes very good important public policy reasons for overriding that principle. This might be one of them. That access to information should be made available in order to ensure a good and accurate electoral roll, we would not want to dispute. There is an issue about whether other government departments and organisations have the statutory powers to provide that information. It might well be that legislation is necessary. If it is necessary, we would want to see it as narrow and specific legislation authorising the transfer of the information for a specific and identifiable and justifiable public purpose. We certainly do not say that this is objectionable in principle and should be ruled out; absolutely not.
Q82 Mr Betts: If everyone knew, when they were filling in a council tax form, that that information could also be used for electoral registration purposes and the law had been changed to allow that, and that was narrowly drawn, you then would feel that was something that would be reasonable to do.
Mr Aldhouse: May I put it the other way? I should like to say that it is certainly something the Information Commissioner would not object to. I put it that way because I do not actually think it is for the Information Commissioner to promote the particular way of doing it, as someone who would want to perhaps comment on data protection safeguards, but the proposal that you are putting forward is a perfectly reasonable proposal and not one the Information Commissioner would want to object to. It is not really for our office to be promoting one way of doing electoral registration.
Q83 Mr Betts: May I just take it on to another related issue? Obviously national identity cards must be exercising your thoughts to a degree. If we had a comprehensive system brought in where effectively there was a list of all citizens in the country with details of them, would it then to your mind be appropriate if that information were collected at the same time for electoral registration purposes? One of the things the public often objects to is having to provide the same information for two purposes, when they assume government ought to be doing a little bit of sharing in a common-sense way.
Mr Aldhouse: Two points of principle. Sometimes it is a very good idea to collect what seems to be very similar information separately, partly because individuals might, for entirely legitimate reasons, want to use a different name or a different address and we have come across examples of that in the past. In this particular case, and I have not attempted to think through all the implications of this, that problem might not arise and you might well want to say that the list of people on the national identity register is to all intents and purposes the list of those entitled to vote in elections. I could see the strength of that argument.
Mr Bamford: Could I just add something to that answer? One of the problems with the national identity registration scheme which is proposed will be enrolling people and understanding on what basis they are there. I think it would be very clear that the actual people who are entitled to a national identity registration number and a card would actually not be entitled to vote in some instances. So you would be involved in adding an extra level of difficulty to the enrolment process, of then actually determining the eligibility for certain services at the point of enrolment.
Q84 Mr Betts: So that is a matter of practical objection, rather that a principle objection.
Mr Bamford: It would be a significant practical problem for the Home Office to try to achieve that objective at the same time as enrolling people.
Q85 Mr Betts: More immediately, the government is, and we are waiting for a strategy paper very soon I understand, trying to get the CORE project under way for a national database of electoral registers which would be formed by the information collected by electoral registration officers at local level. Again, have you been in discussion with government about that? Have you thought about the necessary safeguards or are you generally relaxed about that?
Mr Aldhouse: We have not been consulted on it.
Q86 Mr Betts: Do you know about it?
Mr Aldhouse: We know about it.
Q87 Mr Betts: You have not been consulted. Would you have expected to be consulted about it before the project actually is implemented?
Mr Aldhouse: We should have thought that this was a project which had data protection implications and we normally expect government departments to consult us when they have such a promotion.
Q88 Chairman: Very tactful, but you are a bit unhappy, is that right?
Mr Aldhouse: I should prefer it if the Commissioner had been consulted.
Q89 Dr Whitehead: In paragraph 29 of your memorandum to the Committee, you raise some concerns about the targeting of voter profiles by political parties as a result of use of the marked register. You suggest that by the use of a number of other techniques, which gather different amounts of information, very accurate profiles can be produced. You expressed concern that that is not in your view, an appropriate use of the marked register. On the other hand, the existence of the marked register as a public document historically, to ensure that a check against impersonation for example can be undertaken, seems to be a rather important element of the process. How would you reconcile those two positions and particularly meet your concerns about profiling whilst allowing people to inspect the marked register as far as potential fraud is concerned?
Mr Aldhouse: By a purely expedient practical process, I am afraid; the sort of process which was adopted with the poll tax arrangements. Yes, there is a need and a pressing public policy reason to inspect the register and allow it to be inspected. That should be permitted, but that is not the same as providing copies of it. Inspection must be permitted. We do not believe that copies should be made available.
Q90 Chairman: Should not be made available to whom?
Mr Aldhouse: Complete copies should not be published, although a member of the public, and in this respect probably political parties would be exercising the greatest interest, should be able to inspect marked copies of the register in order to ensure against impersonation and any other electoral fraud.
Q91 Dr Whitehead: A sort of chained bible method.
Mr Aldhouse: That is our practical expedient.
Q92 Adrian Sanders: What would there be to stop somebody going in with a copy register and simply copying onto their register what they see on the marked register? There is no offence.
Mr Aldhouse: You could put together rules about the ways in which people should inspect the register. If somebody is really determined, I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody going to inspect a marked-up register, copying out five items every day and going back and doing it again. The experience in other areas is that people will understand the principle and respect the principle which is being demonstrated.
Q93 Adrian Sanders: On what do you base that?
Mr Aldhouse: Our experience of council tax.
Mr Bamford: May I say, without being expert on the subject, that my understanding with the existing full register and the edited register, is that you potentially have the same register as well? Somebody could go in and inspect the full register, which everybody can, but they had actually bought a copy of the edited register and therefore could annotate it with the extra details. My understanding is that at the moment electoral registration officers do not allow that to take place.
Q94 Adrian Sanders: There is not much point to doing that if there is no endgame. However, there is clearly an endgame, an interest in using a marked register in terms of parties targeting their message at those voters who are most likely to vote, who would be the ones recorded as having voted in the past. It is actually a very valuable document for any political organisation which contests elections.
Mr Aldhouse: I think I used the community charge example before, where some rules like this were constructed. In that sense the document was extremely valuable to direct marketers and others and the practical inconvenience of copying out by hand small quantities at a time conveyed the message that this was not acceptable. Yes, it is possible that someone would attach such importance to it that this would not be a successful expedient: at the moment that is the expedient we would recommend.
Q95 Dr Whitehead: Does the same principle not apply to the concern that the credit reference agencies have access to a full copy of the register and indeed they quite often use that access for a purpose which does not relate to elections but relates to some other purpose entirely?
Mr Aldhouse: That is absolutely right. The Commissioner's position in principle was and still is that the electoral register exists to aid the conduct of elections. That is why, for 15 years now- to put it in the rather strong words of the first Data Protection Registrar - he could not see why anybody should be under a statutory duty to report their changes of address to direct marketers. The credit reference agencies advanced a strong argument that for the avoidance of fraud and similar reasons they should be able to have access to the electoral register in order to assist the identification of individuals. This is one of those issues where you have a competing public interest which the government and the courts indeed accepted should override the narrow data protection view. I do not dispute that. Our starting point was that there is a narrow purpose for the electoral register.
Q96 Chairman: As I understand it, the mobile phone companies are actually improving registration amongst youngsters because you cannot now easily buy a mobile phone on one of these arrangements where you get the phone free and pay for our charges unless you can prove your address. I understand the mobile phone companies, via the credit rating people, are checking whether you are on the electoral register. If you are on the electoral register you can get mobile phones. So there is a certain incentive, is there not, for young people to get on the electoral register.
Mr Aldhouse: I suppose unintended consequences can sometimes be good as well as bad.
Chairman: On that note, may I thank you very much for your evidence?
Memoranda submitted by Conservative Party, Labour Party and Liberal Democrats
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Mr David Simpson, Head of Compliance and Data Protection, Conservative Party, Mr Peter Watt, Head of the Constitutional and Legal Unit, Labour Party and Mr Mark Pack, Internet and Communications Officer, Liberal Democrats, examined.
Q97 Chairman: May I welcome you to the final session this afternoon? Would you identify yourselves for the record and then if anyone wants to say anything briefly by way of introduction, we shall be happy to hear it?
Mr Pack: I am Mark Pack from the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Simpson: David Simpson from the Conservative Party.
Mr Watt: Peter Watt from the Labour Party.
Q98 Chairman: Does anyone want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
Mr Simpson: I am perfectly happy to go straight to questions.
Mr Pack: Yes; straight to questions.
Mr Watt: Yes.
Q99 Mr Beith: I am not sure whether I should declare an interest, because, like all other members of this Committee, I am a member of one of the parties represented by one of you. You are all representatives of political parties interested in organising elections competently and beneficially, so presumably any views you have on this subject are really more dictated by how you organise elections than by some grand principle of whether it is better for us to be collectively registered in households or individually registered as individuals. What advantage do you see for yourselves in it?
Mr Pack: The main potential advantage of individual registration from our perspective is the extra security it can provide for postal voting. Regardless of the issue around possible all-postal voting or postal voting on demand or widespread electronic voting, even under the current set-up an increasing proportion of votes is cast by post. I think that there is a general view that the current security arrangements are far from ideal and that individual registration provides the possibility of gathering extra information about individuals. There are obviously some questions about whether signatures, dates of birth, other identifiers and so on, can be used to validate that a postal vote is really cast by the person it says it should be cast by. It would be fair to say that is a fairly important point of principle to say that there needs to be a reasonable way of being assured that votes are being cast by those who are entitled to cast them.
Mr Simpson: We would certainly go along with all of that argument. There are distinct advantages in individuals knowing that they are committing themselves, whereas the householder will merely tick a box which says X, Y and Z still live here. Thank you very much. Sign it off and away it goes and X, Y and Z may never even be consulted about it. It does not have to be the case. It is right that there is individual responsibility which is extremely important in this exercise. We would certainly support the Northern Ireland system if we were asked how to deal with this. The way forward there, with the use of the National Insurance number - I will not go into the other identifier which is used in Northern Ireland necessarily - seems to me to be the appropriate way forward.
Mr Watt: The other issue of principle is that we want as many people as possible to be taking part in the electoral process. I think we would all agree that we would want to move forward to multi-channel-enabled elections where people have choices as to how they cast their votes. The practical reality is that the only way that is going to happen is that we do have individual voter registration, where people can vote at more places than just that one polling station at a single point in their constituency.
Q100 Mr Beith: As a matter of practice how much do your parties use the published electoral register or the marked register as a means of establishing whether some fraud has taken place; not for other purposes mentioned earlier but for establishing whether some kind of fraud has taken place or electoral malpractice?
Mr Simpson: I would say only at a time when the result of an election in a particular ward or constituency is challenged.
Q101 Mr Beith: You would be challenging it.
Mr Simpson: Yes, of course. We would challenge the result in a particular case, if it were maybe a result like the Halesowen case a year or so ago where the returning officer was actually taken to the election court on the balance of probability of whether or not people had received postal vote application forms. It was a key decision which I believe involved the Labour Party in quite some cost.
Mr Watt: I could not possibly comment on the cost, but we certainly had some interest. That was an interesting case in that the issue there was whether or not the fact that someone did not receive their postal vote, for reasons to do with the Post Office or whatever, was actually a valid reason to contest the outcome of the election. It was an important point of principle. I would agree with David in a sense when it comes to fraud, but what we would use the electoral register for would be as a check, to make sure that people are being registered to vote. It becomes quite clear, as you are getting to know your patch and pounding the streets, as I am sure colleagues do regularly, that there are certain parts of your constituency where rates of registration are very low. If you knock at a house and no-one in the house is on the register and it happens door after door and you realise that there is a particular problem, then you would want to take some remedial action.
Mr Pack: The other issue in respect of fraud is that the existence of the electoral register, the publication of the marked register and so on are not just useful in terms of when a particular allegation comes up being able to see whether it looks like there is some evidence to make it worth pursuing, but also that it helps prevent fraud in that certain types of fraud are a lot easier to spot because we have a public electoral register and because we have a marked register which can be inspected. If either or both of those did not apply, it is quite plausible that there would be all sorts of fraud taking place which do not happen at the moment because they would then become much easier.
Q102 Mr Beith: Do you have concerns about the potential reduced size of the register from individual registration, except in so far as that is because of the deletion of fraudulent or mistaken entries?
Mr Watt: We certainly do. I would say that was our main concern. Whilst we are wholly in favour, as a matter of principle, of individual voter registration, we have real concerns about the speed with which it would be introduced. The Electoral Commission have made some reassuring noises in terms of their recommendations for phasing in individual voter registration, but if you look at Northern Ireland as an example where that clearly would have a big impact, there are certain groups which would be particularly badly affected. Young people and students come to mind. If we were just to go from household registration to individual registration we would have real concerns.
Q103 Chairman: The problem in Northern Ireland was not necessarily the first register, it was the continuing process. In a sense it could be done quickly, as long as some way was found to make sure that particularly young people and other groups actually registered.
Mr Simpson: It would be impossible to run things side by side. You have to have a cut-off point and if it were determined by parliament that we should go to individual registration from a particular date, then that is what would happen. I do not see how you can have a dual system.
Mr Pack: It is also the case that whilst we share the concerns about what would be the initial impact on the registration rate, when you separate out two other parts of that issue, one of which is the impact that actually has on turnout in an election and therefore to what extent the people who do not register initially are the people who are not going to vote and therefore although there is still an impact of having reduced registration rates, it may not be as significant, but, also, in general in this country we are very poor at providing people with opportunities to register. If you compare, for example, the circumstance in Australia with Britain, in Australia there is much more integration, much more joined-up government - in the modern jargon - than there is in Britain. Our view would very much be that if we go down the route of individual registration, one way of dealing with the issue about a possible drop in registration rates is to look also at making it easier for people to register and it being tied up with the other sorts of things people do in terms of telling the Royal Mail when they move, giving information to DVLA and similar activities.
Q104 Peter Bottomley: In one area we have made the change already for service voters. In the past people in the armed services could register and would not have to change and they could always go on voting. We have now moved to individual registration. It is quite clear that the evidence is that registration has dropped very significantly. There you have a monopoly employer, who knows where the people are and registration has gone down and down, has it not?
Mr Watt: I would agree and we are concerned. There are some merits in the household system in that we would not throw out the baby with the bath water here. It is not beyond the wit of us to come up with a system which maintains the advantages of the household registration whilst actually having individual voter registration; perhaps a household registration form which requires individual voters to sign, particularly if voters begin to have their own voter identification number or whatever that becomes known as. I do not want to bring in any disagreement when there is clearly agreement between the three of us so far, but a note of disagreement with Mark. Whilst I do not think the issue first of all would be that just because voters did not register, there would not necessarily be a drop in turnout. I do not think that is the issue because if people are on the register then we can communicate with them. If we are communicating with them, it might not mean they vote in this election, but the fact that they have been communicated with over a series of elections may well be a factor which leads them to decide to vote at some point in the future. I certainly would not want to give the impression that we would be unconcerned just because they did not vote when they were not on the register.
Mr Simpson: The thing with the service voting is that it is different in the sense that you have always had one person in the household consistently, every year, having to do a registration. It was considered that if you joined the service of your country and you registered to vote once, that stayed with you for life. It is that principle which has been changed by the 2000 Act and that has caused the real problem and the reduction in the number of service people voting or inclined to vote.
The Committee suspended from 4pm to 4.10pm for a division in the House
Q105 Mr Betts: May I pick up three points, one made by each of you, and see whether there might be some agreement on the way forward with individual registration? Peter Watt was saying that there might be a possibility of having household forms which the head of the household received but then individuals signed them in their own capacity. Presumably that could be backed up by individual forms as well for anybody who wanted one. Mark Pack was making the point earlier about the use of other information, driving licence, council tax or whatever, as a means of getting information about individuals and where they lived and the appropriateness of using that. David Simpson was making the point that we used to have a situation where service personnel, once they were registered in a particular place, stayed on the register. There is that continuity principle: if someone is registered at an address, whether or not they stay there they remain registered. Are they three points about which there might be common agreement?
Mr Simpson: On the service vote issue I rather think that a squaddy in Basra has more things on his mind than getting a vote back home. It seems to me that once people had signed up for the services they had the right to remain.
Q106 Mr Betts: I was really asking you about the continuity principle and whether it was a general one which could be applied across to everybody.
Mr Simpson: I believe that there has to be an annual registration.
Q107 Chairman: Why? Why does there have to be an annual registration?
Mr Simpson: Historically that has been the case. Though we do not have to follow history necessarily it has stood us in good stead thus far in creating electoral rolls. One of the problems sometimes is that local authorities, bless them, do not always follow up and do the removals from registers as quickly as they might and that leads to excess numbers on an electoral roll. If you are then looking at the problem like Northern Ireland, where about 120,000 people came off the roll the first year they went to individual registration, an awful lot of that could have been natural wastage; let us put it that way. They still think that annual registration is necessary in order to maintain an interest and maintain an accurate list for a particular local area.
Mr Watt: In terms of annual registration, what we would say is that again it is the baby and the bath water argument. There are some disadvantages to annual registration which, for example, the Electoral Commissioner identified in that it does not necessarily target under-represented groups particularly well for instance. On the other hand, what it does do is put the onus on local authorities to make an effort once a year in order to make sure their register is accurate. There are some very good examples around the country of authorities which have made the most of the annual registration. Again, what we would support would be a combination of maintaining the annual register, together with more targeted and focused work where local authorities are sharing best practice of what works in terms of increasing the registration of under-represented groups so you would get the advantages of both. I think that is where we would want to end up on this.
Mr Pack: It also adds an important safeguard in terms of both new properties appearing and old properties going. One of the problems all councils face is that electoral registration is not a great vote winner and therefore when it comes to allocating resources they are often relatively short of money. Having an annual process ensures that at least once a year there is a thorough check of the validity of the data. Whilst councils vary somewhat in how quickly they respond, for example, either to properties being demolished or new properties being built, we have at the moment the guarantee that once a year any issues like that are sorted out and we have a guarantee that once a year a whole range of other issues will be sorted out.
Q108 Mr Betts: When some of us were recently in Australia and talked to the Electoral Commission there, they just looked in amazement at us when we described our system and said "Why do you bother sending out forms every year to people who have not changed their address, have not changed their circumstances and, if people do not send them back, chasing them up with an actual physical canvass?". What they do there is actually require other organisations, the utility companies, the postal authorities, the driving licence authorities, to inform the Electoral Commission when there have been changes of address. The Commission's job then is to chase those people whose circumstances have changed. They say that therefore they focus their efforts on the people whose registration position is going to be changed.
Mr Simpson: So all the power is with the Commission out there and not with the local people and the local authorities.
Q109 Mr Betts: Yes; either the national commission or the state commission. Whether it is or not, that is the requirement and they chase the people whose circumstances have changed. They claim that their register is 98 per cent to 99 per cent accurate, which is a lot more accurate than ours is.
Mr Watt: I would agree with that. I do not have any problems with that in the sense of the advantage of data sharing. I heard some of your conversation with previous witnesses and I think that there is a lot to be gained from data sharing with utility companies, even within local authorities. There is also a practical consideration which gives us concern in terms of the more targeted rolling approach and that is that there is the danger of political bias, or at least the allegation and perception of political bias in terms of where is being targeted for registration. Certainly in some of the proposals which have come forward from the Electoral Commission, we can imagine scenarios in which, even if it were not true, there would be the perception that particular areas were being targeted for voter registration for party political purposes. The advantage at the moment is that we have an annual registration and we know for practical purposes what that means for us practically. It works, so I think it is better to stay where we are and add on the benefits of the sorts of things you are talking about, than to get rid of the system and start again.
Peter Bottomley: Is it not true, picking up what Sir Paul Beresford said, that if electoral registration officers use the 192.com and Experian type of information, that should be able to throw up households where they thought something had changed and they could check, on an exception basis? Is it not also true that the Andrew Bennett issue, that so long as local authorities say you can just ring up and report that there has been no change, you actually cut out half the expense of organising it? Would it not be a good idea also if even this place could actually agree with the Treasury that to call both the Treasury and Number One Parliament Street parliamentary building Number One Parliament Street is absurd?
Chairman: I cannot get smiles on the record very easily.
Q110 Mr Betts: In terms of the cut-off date for allowing people to register before an election, do we not have to get that far closer particularly to general election dates? We all know people who suddenly realise that they are not registered and who become very disgruntled and disaffected and cannot understand why, as there are still weeks to go to polling day something cannot be done. In many states in the United States, for example, you can literally register on the day. I know they do not have an electoral registration system we would want to copy in every respect, but would there not be something to be said for trying to get the data a lot closer to polling day and how close do you think we can get?
Mr Pack: Our view would certainly be that we would agree there is an almost, one is tempted to say, very English eccentricity that the point at which most members of the public are aware that there is an election on and maybe they have not sorted out their electoral registration, the deadlines have been and gone. It is difficult to see, if one were to sit down to invent a system, that one would come up with that system of having a deadline before most people notice there may be an issue. That said, the electoral register is used for a range of purposes, including, for example for Westminster elections and the provision of the Freepost election address leaflet, if candidates decide they wish to use an addressed leaflet they pull that information from the electoral register. In terms of it being an important tool for candidates campaigning. There is a trade-off between having a deadline which is closer to polling day, which is more convenient for the public and having a deadline which is further away from polling day, which is more convenient for those who make use of the electoral register.
Q111 Chairman: Come on. If a political party has ten extra names, it is not that difficult to do an extra set of labels, is it?
Mr Pack: Absolutely. The question is whether you get the ten extra names two hours before the polls close or you get them with a little bit more notice. There is a trade-off. Certainly our view would be that the current date is not the optimal one for trading off those different factors. The other issue it does tie into is exactly what happens with the rest of the registration process. The question is: at that deadline date, whenever the date happens to be, are you getting ten extra names or are you getting 5,000 extra names, which are two very different scenarios?
Q112 Sir Paul Beresford: If the cut-off date were very, very close to the election, particularly where you have small numbers of votes which would conclude the election in particular wards, do you not feel you would run the possibility of a transitional movement of individuals?
Mr Watt: Yes, there is that risk and that is the balance. In a sense you have hit the nail on the head. For practical purposes we would support the registration up to close of nominations; that would seem to us to be sufficiently far away from polling day. Even with that, it does not completely mitigate the situation you are describing. As with all these things, they have to be balanced against the fact that there are individuals - take a parliamentary by-election - who suddenly become aware of the fact that there is this rather important event taking place in their constituency and at that point they realise they cannot actually take part. Those two things have to be balanced.
Mr Simpson: I would go along with Peter here. Sir Paul may be referring back to the Swampy factor in Newbury some years ago. There is a danger of small groups of people believing that they should have a disproportionate ability to influence a result.
Q113 Mr Betts: Are you talking about the Liberal Democrats?
Mr Simpson: I am not talking about the Liberal Democrats at all; would I dare? I am merely talking about the fact the there are groups of individuals, who may not be party political, who may have a view on the outcome of that particular result in that particular constituency. I do think it is quite right that we should have a date which is a bit further out than that.
Q114 Mr Betts: May I raise one other issue and that is that if we go to individual registration there clearly are some arrangements now, which operate in nursing homes and halls of residence for students, where there is a bit of a centralised attempt to register everyone? How do you see that being affected by moving towards individual registration? How can we practically develop systems to make sure people do get registered?
Mr Watt: I would say that for all practical purposes we would prefer a system where there was a maintaining of household registration whilst introducing individual registration. In the situations you describe, for practical purposes, the warden or whoever it was would receive a list of those people who were previously registered and it would be incumbent upon them to ensure those individuals signed, marked the form, whatever it was. You do not then lose people off the register while at the same time you maintain the individual voter registration.
Q115 Chairman: It would be a nightmare, would it not, for the principal of the hall of residence? You would have 95 per cent of the students having signed and you would be waiting for that one who had disappeared somewhere. It would be somewhat onerous.
Mr Watt: Yes, if you took it to the Nth degree in that sense it would be a nightmare. There must be a practical way through this in terms of halls of residence which could be worked through.
Q116 Mr Clelland: It says here that the Labour Party favours the introduction of a national register and that the Conservatives are firmly against any moves to centralise electoral registration services. Perhaps Peter Watt could tell us what the advantages of a centralised register would be and David Simpson could tell us what the disadvantages would be. Perhaps Mark Pack could give us a third way.
Mr Watt: The advantages of a national register in campaigning, or for individual voters, is that we can then move towards a multi-channel-enabled election which I know the government are in favour of, so that people are not tied to voting in one polling station which is somewhere near where they are actually registered to vote, but they could in theory vote anywhere in their constituency or even outside the constituency. Obviously once you have a national register, those sorts of things become possible in the way that, for practical purposes, they are not possible at the moment. There are also some very practical advantages for political parties. At the moment the cost of managing 600-odd different registers, which are given to us in different formats, and turning those into a campaigning tool, a process which all major political parties have to go through, is extremely high and over a year the costs seem to increase disproportionately. There are both advantages for voters, but also advantages for political parties as well.
Q117 Mr Clelland: So the individual voter would have a unique number or identifier which would be allocated to them and their constituency. They could vote anywhere in the country but that vote would be allocated to that particular constituency.
Mr Watt: Yes.
Q118 Sir Paul Beresford: Would that increase the chance of impersonation?
Mr Watt: Security is always a concern with these things. It has to be balanced against making it easier for people to vote. Impersonation can take place now. People could just walk into a polling station, if they wanted to. The requirements for security versus the ease with which people can vote have to be balanced. Take myself, if I had a unique voting number and I went to a polling station and was told I had already cast my vote somewhere else, then that would clearly be cause for concern and there would be an audit trail, because it would be obvious where my vote had been cast.
Q119 Sir Paul Beresford: One of the advantages of having it quite narrow is that there is a chance you will meet the neighbour, but if the head of the household wanted to vote a particular way for the whole of his household and they were all away on holiday, he could go round a selection of polling booths voting for himself, his son - not his wife, but you get the point.
Mr Watt: I do not believe that we would invent a system which was absolutely 100 per cent secure whilst at the same time making it as easy as possible for voters to cast their vote and that is the balance. The Electoral Commission will certainly have a really vital role, once we have a national register, in terms of auditing some of these. Spot checking, random checking of voters who voted and those sorts of functions are ways which will not only increase the security of the ballot, but will also be seen to increase the security of the ballot.
Mr Simpson: We believe, frankly, that local is best and local people vote for local communities, they vote in their local communities and their registration should be kept within their local communities. On the other hand, obviously there has to be a national database and we are fully signed up to the creation of a national register, but by keeping it local and bringing it together through a system. We are all looking forward to the day when the money comes forward from government and we get the CORE project properly under way; we hope that will be not very far away, because we all believe, without exception amongst the larger parties, that that is the right way forward to create a national database. It is how you get there. As far as we are concerned, we should say: keeping things local, making sure people have an interest in their local community and that registration remains local is the best way forward.
Mr Pack: In some ways the differences of view are slightly a matter of semantics. There is quite broad agreement amongst political parties and hopefully Peter and David will not immediately contradict what I have to say in terms of believing that there is an important role for the local knowledge and expertise which councils and their electoral services staff have, particularly about where the flat over the shop is, where you get to it, round by the steps, round the back on a different street, and so on. Whatever electoral registration model we have, having that degree of local knowledge and expertise is important. Secondly, I think there is a broad degree of consensus that there is a deep level of frustration at the huge variation in data standards and quality of data on the register. On the one hand local expertise is important, but on the other hand much more uniformity of data standards should go hand in hand with that. What you are left with then in terms of scope for disagreement is relatively minor in my view in terms of whether people have a unique national electoral registration number or whether we use some other number which is in existence for other purposes and doubles up for that. If we have that, do we allow people a much wider degree of discretion as to which polling station they vote in or not? To be honest, both of those are in a sense options. In terms of the immediate future, in my view they might be less pressing than getting a good set of national data standards implemented, enforced and followed.
Q120 Mr Clelland: So if we do have this centrally held data, what restrictions do you think should be put on its use?
Mr Watt: The same restrictions that are put on the local registers. Political parties have access to the electoral registers for fiscal purposes, for campaigning purposes and that would continue. All other who have access would have restrictions put upon them. That would also mean you have the two registers for those who decide to opt out of the commercially available register. I do actually agree with David that although there would be a national register in that sense, there would in reality be a combination of locally produced registers, which would be produced to a common data standard. I do not think that in actual fact there would be much change.
Q121 Chairman: So we have a situation at the moment in which there are about ten different computer programmes which different local authorities use to compile the electoral register and you would envisage that they all move to one and then you would have one national list which was completed on the basis of locally collected information.
Mr Simpson: That is exactly how I perceive it.
Q122 Chairman: If you are going to go to being able to vote anywhere in the country, you are going to have to have the identifiers. You do not accept that a signature would be suitable for an identifier because that would be electronically difficult to verify, so you are talking about some other identifier. Would the fact that you have to produce a piece of information when you want to vote actually make it harder for people to vote and therefore less likely that they would vote?
Mr Watt: In a sense we are thinking outside the box here. When we talk about the advantages in terms of being able to vote in places other than your constituency, the reality is that that does not exist at the moment. As the national register develops, those sorts the things will be explored. You can imagine a situation where, for instance, if I decided to vote at my normal polling station, or perhaps within my ward or my constituency, then my signature or whatever would be enough, whereas if I were going to be voting outside my constituency somewhere else, then I might be required to produce a second form of identification. Those things would not be particularly difficult and it would be easy for the electorate to understand: I am either voting close to home or I am not.
Q123 Chairman: If I wanted to vote from somewhere where I was not normally resident, I would have to have the identifier with me. What do you recommend as an identifier?
Mr Simpson: I would go back probably to the National Insurance number as being the most simple, straightforward identifier. Everybody over the age of 16 has one.
Q124 Chairman: Can you tell me your National Insurance number?
Mr Simpson: Yes, I can.
Q125 Chairman: That was a bad question from me. I should have asked myself, because I certainly cannot come out with my National Insurance number and I suspect a lot of my electorate would not be able to come out, off the top of their heads, with their National Insurance number.
Mr Pack: As someone who can also remember their National Insurance number - we are an elite club here - the reason we have quite deliberately not expressed a view on the appropriate additional identifiers is because they tie in very closely with other issues such as the question of ID cards; the obvious one which comes to mind. In many ways what is appropriate as an extra identifier to be able to register follows on from the decisions and questions which lie outside the narrow remit of electoral registration.
Q126 Chairman: If you were going to have identifiers, that would be a piece of information which would have to be entered at the point at which you registered. Is that right? You would have to provide your National Insurance number.
Mr Simpson: Yes.
Mr Watt: It would certainly be a number you take with you and that would be the point. If you moved addresses, that would be a unique identifier which you would take with you.
Q127 Mr Beith: That is the number they give you when you supply the information, is it not?
Mr Watt: It would depend what that was: whether it would be a unique electoral number or whether it would be a piece of information which you already had.
Q128 Chairman: If it were a unique electoral number, you would probably have to remember it from 12 months to 12 months, would you not? You would not use it that frequently.
Mr Watt: If a number were required - as I said a minute ago we are looking forward to a system which does not exist and trying to identify whether or not, for instance, I would be required to carry forward my unique electoral number - it could be that the unique electoral number is something which is used by the electoral registration departments of local authorities to identify individuals, whereas I am required to provide perhaps my name, address and a form of identification, something else, so I do not need to remember that number myself. I would say as well that one frustration we all have about this is that it is frustrating that we are sitting here talking about a system which does not exist in terms of the common data standards. It does seem to all of us slightly difficult to understand why it is that we, sitting here today, do not even have common data standards between the Electoral Commission and local authorities in order to be able to make some progress on the national register.
Q129 Mr Beith: May I just clarify one point? Is there not a slight danger that you assume that possession of a unique electoral number demonstrates that you are qualified to vote in an election, which may not be the case. You may have supplied information that you are who you say you are, but you may be disqualified by virtue of being a citizen of a country which does not have voting rights in this country; you may be disqualified from voting in parliamentary elections because you are a peer or whatever it may be. The mere possession of a number still has to be recognised as not sufficient proof that you are qualified to vote in that election.
Mr Pack: There are two different sorts of electoral fraud in this respect. One is effectively fictitious people being placed on the electoral register and votes then being cast on their behalf, or people who should not, for other reasons, be on the electoral register. Certainly outside of Northern Ireland, that is a relatively minor concern compared with the other group, which is where votes are being cast on behalf of somebody who is legitimately able to vote, but not actually being cast by them. If you take the scenario of, say, a postman deciding to steal some postal ballot papers because they are in a distinctive envelope and they decide to walk off with them, what are they able to do? How can they cast them? At the moment, if it is a traditional election with a witness statement, okay, they have to forge some signatures, but the signatures never get checked. There is no record to check the signatures against even if one wished to, so it is quite difficult to make use of the current security arrangements to ensure that those postal votes were really cast by the people who should have done so. If there were some other identifier, take the National Insurance number just as an example, how is that postman or somebody else who steals the envelopes, going to know what the National Insurance numbers are of those people? It would add a significant protection; not perfect, but a significant extra protection.
Q130 Chairman: May I take you on to the question of the anonymous registration for people of various categories who should not be on a public list? Do you see problems with that and would the problems get worse if you had individual registration?
Mr Watt: Clearly there are categories of people whose identity should be protected. One can think of those who are victims of domestic violence, people recommended by the police or social service departments. Clearly those people should not be on registers available publicly or to political parties even and we should not have any problems with that at all.
Q131 Mr Betts: You talked earlier about the issue of certain groups being significantly under-represented on the register and whether it was right to target-canvass. Are there any views on that between the three of you? Surely in some polling districts - and I got some information out from my own constituency two or three years ago and saw this - after a couple of reminders through the post more than 80 per cent of the forms have come back, in others probably 60 per cent or less. Is it not reasonable for electoral registration officers to target, at least in the first instance, those areas where few forms have been returned?
Mr Watt: We would say yes; yes, it is. I do not think we would have any problems with that at all, in fact we would strongly support targeted initiatives. The Electoral Commission have done some interesting work in terms of putting together some thoughts about the minimum standards which might be required, the best performance or performance standards which could be set for under-represented groups which local authorities will be expected to achieve. That would also remove any concerns about political bias, about particular groups being targeted in particular areas, if they were nationally agreed by a body like the Electoral Commission.
Mr Simpson: I do not think that is an unreasonable approach. This brings us back quite clearly to the advantage as well of maintaining local registration, which is particularly important. Local knowledge is an important thing in order to determine and increase the number of people who actually do register.
Q132 Mr Betts: Could we come onto the issue of compulsory registration? If we go to individual registration, should it be compulsory? What penalties should there be for failing to register? Apart from mobile phones, what incentives could there be for encouraging people to register?
Mr Simpson: Technically there is compulsion there already, is there not, in the sense that everybody is supposed to register and there is a penalty - I think it is £1,000 - if you do not? It seems to me that no local authority rushes to enforce that particular penalty. I personally do not see any need nor would have any desire to see any further compulsion.
Q133 Mr Betts: There is no compulsion now, is there?
Mr Simpson: There is in the sense that it is there, it is in the Act, but that is as far as it goes: whether anybody actually takes that any further, it is in the Act that you can be fined for not completing. That does not make you vote, it means you are actually registered to vote.
Q134 Chairman: Do you have any idea how many were fined last year?
Mr Simpson: I do not think anybody was fined. I should be very surprised if anybody had been.
Mr Watt: Technically the issue of compulsion will need to be looked at if we move to individual voter registration. At the moment the law only refers to the householder to whom the form is sent. Clearly that needs to be looked at. We should be in favour of maintaining a sanction, but it would come down to local returning officers as to whether or not it was used. I should expect on balance that most of them would not, because they would prefer to spend their time and money, rather than prosecuting individuals, doing the targeted things we were talking about a moment ago, which would have the effect of increasing the number of people registered, which at the end of the day is what we are all interested in doing.
Q135 Mr Betts: We talked earlier about the possibility of improving data sharing to try to get more information into the electoral registration process. When we were talking about identifiers, the issue of identity cards came up. When we have a comprehensive national identity card system, there must be a match between the people who should have one of those and the people who should be registered for electoral purposes in a way. Has any thought been given to bringing those two processes together or using the information from the national identity card system to improve the accuracy of voter registration massively?
Mr Watt: The problem at the moment is that there is a problem agreeing common data standards between local authorities. What is absolutely clear is that at the point we have a comprehensive identity card system in place, when that comes in, one of the advantages of that would be identity in terms of voting and it may well help us get round the issues we were talking about a moment ago, about voting in different constituencies and how to prove your identity. I would just express our common frustration again that we are actually struggling at the moment to agree common data standards between local authorities for the national electoral register.
Q136 Mr Beith: Is it not the case that the citizens of the Irish Republic would require an identity card, but would not be qualified to vote?
Mr Watt: There are several groups of people where there would be that issue. The other question is maybe more a matter of if rather than when, in terms of when there is that comprehensive national identity card system. Even if one takes the position that one will definitely happen and everything will work, on the most optimistic timescale we are still likely looking at several general elections before the ID scheme is fully in place, national, mandatory and so on. It is reasonable to say actually that it is worth basing what happens to the electoral registration system on something which provides a good workable system on general elections in the interim. Obviously 10, 15, 20 years down the line, all sorts of other things may change anyway.
Q137 Mr Betts: Back to the here and now then. You have all been expressing frustration with what you all agree are these common data systems between various local authorities and agreed on a national basis as well. Who is dragging their feet? Who should pull their finger out now and get on with it?
Mr Simpson: The government might say the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission would probably say the government.
Q138 Chairman: Who would you say?
Mr Simpson: I would personally say the government quite frankly. That is not party political, it is simply the fact that the original idea came through the IVA and through the Electoral Commission four years ago, following the introduction of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. We all need to have a national database for that alone, never mind voting.
Q139 Chairman: It does not appear that the three of you are in a sense disagreeing, or shall I say squabbling. It is not your input into it; it is government input which is slowing things down.
Mr Simpson: Yes.
Mr Pack: It is. Our frustration would be that there have been various projects and various consultations over the last few years on which all the main parties have given very similar views and we keep on each year, or each few months, being asked for our views again and giving the same views again and the process does not seem to move forward. The one slight caveat I would add is that at the moment there is clearly a degree of disagreement between the government and the Electoral Commission as to what the stumbling block is. The law requires the Electoral Commission to have a key role in producing the data standards and there is a question about whether the Electoral Commission will really do that as quickly as we wish. Certainly over the overall bigger picture the government has not been moving with any real speed on the issue.
Mr Watt: The government is absolutely committed to the national register, is pushing ahead and the funds are there. What there does absolutely appear to be is an inter-departmental quagmire at an official level and that is why I think we are getting stuck and not being able to agree something very basic. We would all agree politically that we want this to happen; we just do not seem able to agree the data standards.
Q140 Mrs Cryer: How well do you feel the new regulations on making the register publicly available are working? Is there evidence that electors are being excluded or included in the "for sale" register as a result of decisions made on their behalf but without their knowledge by the householder who completes the current registration form?
Mr Pack: Our experience, because we use the full electoral register for our purposes, is that we do not really encounter those sorts of issues directly. In terms of talking to returning officers about getting copies of the register and how the system is working, in general I would say that my impression is that there are no significant problems there, with the important caveat that it is not an area we deal with directly because we deal with the full register.
Q141 Mrs Cryer: You have no knowledge of people being included or excluded by a householder against their will.
Mr Pack: I could not name anybody off the top of my head where that would be the case.
Q142 Mrs Cryer: None of you?
Mr Simpson: No, no direct knowledge.
Mr Pack: No.
Q143 Mrs Cryer: Mr Simpson and Mr Watt, in your written submission you mention that the availability of the marked register can help in detecting fraud. Mr Pack mentioned it in his verbal submission this afternoon. How does that work? How can we detect fraud from a marked register?
Mr Watt: This was the Information Commissioner's evidence before and obviously we have had a lot of conversation with the Electoral Commissioner about this. I think there is a misunderstanding about what political parties use the marked registers for. What we use the marked registers for is a) to make sure we do not speak to people who have already voted on polling day, but b) to make sure we are targeting our messages because we have limited resources and limited time. A by-product of that is that if we knock on somebody's door and as far as we are concerned they did vote in an election and in fact they did not, then if that happens frequently it is obvious that people have been voting for people who did not know they were voting, if you see what I mean. It is a very useful by-product and not one which should be given up lightly. This is why we should argue very strongly that the marked register should remain available to political parties.
Mr Simpson: This is why we were all particularly keen on making sure it was available to parties in those regions in the European elections last year, where the all-postal experiment was taking place.
Q144 Mr Beith: The Liberal Democrats' evidence suggested some kind of additional information which could usefully be included on the register, such as, something which has always seemed to me rather odd, the returning officer deciding whether you are known as Euphemia A Smith, a name you have hated since childhood, or E Ann Smith, but also information which is necessary to be able to communicate with electors using the Royal Mail, because the Royal Mail set conditions like postcodes, which are not on the register. The first of these can be done voluntarily. Do you think an obligation should be placed on the compilers of the register to include postcodes?
Mr Simpson: Frankly, yes.
Mr Pack: Yes.
Mr Watt: Yes.
Mr Simpson: I also think salutation is desperately important.
Mr Pack: The salutation may seem like a slightly esoteric issue, but in practice, if I were to add up the number of complaints from members of the public which I have had to deal with in the last year to do with use of marked registers or tellers at polling stations or questions about the full versus opt-out electoral register or the fact we are using the register at all, they are all completely dwarfed by the total number of complaints from people about us getting their names wrong or getting their titles wrong. In terms of practical day-to-day use of the electoral register, it is actually by far the most important issue compared with a lot of other issues which often take up a lot of time on investigations such as this. On the issue of postcodes, certainly, yes. The other issue I would add, as we said in our written submission, is that there is this inconsistency particularly for military service voters in what the Royal Mail requires for Freepost addresses to be delivered to them and the information provided on the electoral register. It would be sensible to remedy that.
Mr Beith: There is an impressive enthusiastic agreement along the table.
Q145 Peter Bottomley: As I understand it from the evidence we have heard, in some places, take Northern Ireland pre-change, one voter in four was not eligible to be registered and they had 126 per cent registration. In some parts of the rest of the United Kingdom you may have one voter in six not registered, which is down to about 82 per cent. Do you think we should be aiming for a perfect system where nothing can go wrong, or do you think we ought to aim over the next five to ten years to achieve a significant reduction in the wrongly registered and the non-registered and also make some progress towards helping people to vote if they find it difficult? Should we go for perfection or should we go for significant steps to make the situation better?
Mr Watt: Personally I think we should be going for significant steps to make it better. I come back to what I was saying earlier about the Electoral Commission's role here. I think the Electoral Commission, as an independent body observing these things, is in a perfect position to set common standards for what it thinks should be acceptable levels of registration, voter participation; it can target each sector of society and pick up issues, that certain groups have suddenly gone from being well registered to not very well registered. The Electoral Commission seems to me to be in a perfect position to be doing that and it absolutely should be.
Chairman: On that note, may I thank you all very much for your evidence and thank the Committee for their attendance.