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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1463-ii
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration
Tuesday 13 September 2011
Louise Stamp, Julian Bassham and Darren Whitney
Evidence heard in Public Questions 62 - 140
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Tuesday 13 September 2011
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Louise Stamp, Electoral Services Manager, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Julian Bassham, Electoral Services Manager, London Borough of Southwark, and Darren Whitney, Democratic Services Manager, Stratford-on-Avon District Council, gave evidence.
Q62 Chair: Louise, Julian, Darren, welcome. We are very grateful for you sparing the time to come and talk to us this morning. You will find us very friendly, and we want to try and pick your brains as best we can to help us get our report together and do something that hopefully you will find useful.
Would you like to say anything to start us o ff about your experience so far, or a little bit of an opening statement?
Louise Stamp: We have not prepared anything but it is very, very labour intensive, doing data matching.
Chair: I don’t know if it is the room but I cannot quite hear very well, Louise. I am sorry.
Louise Stamp: I was going to say, for all of us-we have had a chat about it-it is very, very labour intensive to get this done, because initially the data matching wasn’t very good. DWP has people-based data, so the amount of mismatches meant it was an onerous task to get it into some sort of form that we could work with, and then it was all delayed for a few weeks because of all the Article 4 agreements that had to be made. Then, when we started, the annual canvass was upon us, and it is a very, very onerous task to do during an annual canvass. I think that applies to all of us.
Q63 Chair: That applies to everybody, yes. Is it just me having a bad morning or are the acoustics in here really terrible?
Mr Turner: There is something wrong.
Louise Stamp: Shall we shout?
Chair: I think you do need to, yes. We are normally not in this old room; we are in the very nice, modern, probably acoustically trained room, so it is just echoing a little bit.
Mrs Laing: Are the microphones working?
Chair: They are. We don’t want to play with them, Eleanor. We will leave the electrics alone.
Mrs Laing: Question withdrawn, sir.
Chair: Anyway, welcome.
Q64 Mr Turner: Yes, would you just start by telling me how much of this extra work is because you are doing something new, and what would you be doing normally which in the fullness of time you hope you would not be doing?
Louise Stamp: We do a lot of initiatives, we go to our citizenship ceremonies, and we go out and we talk to our ethnic groups as well, because my borough is made up of about 38% Bengali. Two of the officers who work for me are Bengali, so that is a really good interaction. What we would normally be doing is our normal outreach work during the rolling registration period, but this is in addition to that, and I have recruited four people to help, because we are getting behind with our annual canvass.
Q65 Mr Turner: So you have four extra people, but how many are there normally?
Louise Stamp: Six in my team-myself and five others.
Mr Turner: Okay.
Darren Whitney: Being a small district, elections aren’t the only thing I deal with. I am Democratic Services Manager, so I have committees, overview and scrutiny as well under myself-I have that as a day-to-day job. I have one other person who helps me on electoral registration, so I am quite stretched in what I can do and with the help I can get. I have had two, sometimes three, areas of help from our central admin team to help us through this period, but again we are doing all sorts of different things. We do outreach work as well, which we work on with our policy team, usually in schools and for older people-we have a senior citizens action network that we go and do electoral outreach work with.
Julian Bassham: It depends quite a lot on the type of local authority you are, and there is different practice across the country at the moment. But there is certainly a case for us with regard to this data matching; we did some in-house data matching in our authority previously, to help identify movers and changes within year to the electoral register. This is quite a significant shift in the amount of resources that are targeted towards that element of it, as opposed to what would traditionally have gone into more of the annual canvass work. What we are trying to work through still at the moment is what of the new work from data matching duplicates existing practice in some authorities, including our own, in terms of tracking down those movers, and what we will identify as additional new work on an ongoing basis. At the moment it is still too early to say what that will be, because that will depend on what the results are, as to whether it has delivered genuine new people who would not be captured through other mechanisms, such as the annual canvass which we are going to have to compare it against, because of the timing of this pilot, rather than just saying it has identified certain people.
Q66 Mr Turner: Okay. How successful have the data matching pilots been so far?
Julian Bassham: I think it depends on your measure of success. It is far too early to say how successful the data matching has been in identifying the 3.5 million missing electors. It has been successful inasmuch as they have by and large started and happened, but with a couple of exceptions still. It has been more successful for us at this stage in telling us what we do know rather than what we don’t know, and that is the challenge, because going forward under IER it is about what we don’t know and tracking those missing millions. At the moment it does not look, from our side, like the DWP data will necessarily answer those questions.
Louise Stamp: We have identified a lot of people in the DWP data who have already moved, so we won’t just write out to them, and in the initial data that we received we found 174 people who were over 111 years old. We cannot write out to everybody, so we asked for a currency of two years, and that reduced the numbers by about 200,000 in my authority, because we are doing full borough. We are all doing slightly different pilots, and mine is full borough. In the matching process, before we started our annual canvass we had about 494 new people identified, but we could only write out to them if I confirmed that they were on council tax and still living at that property. Because we are quite a deprived borough, we would have been inundated, with people saying, "Why are you writing out to people when we’ve told you they’ve moved?" We have to be very careful with the approach we take.
Q67 Mrs Laing: I am not quite sure what you said at the beginning there. I thought you said you had discovered a certain number of people over 100 years old?
Louise Stamp: 174 people over 111 years old.
Q68 Mrs Laing: You found 174 people-
Louise Stamp: In the DWP data that came through they identified data for us-it didn’t match any of our addresses, so we did a filter sort-174 people over 111 years old, and the Cabinet Office approach was, "Mailmerge and write out to them." We are not going to write out to people over 111 years old.
Q69 Mrs Laing: Were there really that many people over 111?
Louise Stamp: No, no, they had all died or moved years ago.
Q70 Mrs Laing: They were still on the register?
Louise Stamp: No, they were not on the register, they were on DWP data-they keep their data for years.
Julian Bassham: If I can just clarify, both Tower Hamlets and Southwark did a pilot, so we were the first authorities to exchange data with the DWP. In that exercise it was identified that while we had requested a currency-the currency of the data, how recent the record was-of two years, that had not been the case. We identified that as not being the case by having people that were clearly dead turning up in the data.
Q71 Mrs Laing: Sorry, I interrupted, but this is quite important. The DWP had people on their data who they regard as part of the population and living in your area, so that shows up in other population statistics, but those people have in fact died some time ago?
Julian Bassham: I think it would be really valuable for you to speak to the DWP about their data set. What we can say from our knowledge of the data set is that the CIS part of the DWP data, which is what we used for the matching exercise with them, is a repository data set. So they simply add information into that process all the time and they keep it for a period of time. While there is a process by which deaths are captured in the DWP data, that process does not work if the person has moved overseas and dies abroad, for example. That is one of the reasons why we are having these records turning up.
Q72 Mrs Laing: That also means that if someone has moved overseas that is also not recorded?
Julian Bassham: That is correct.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Darren Whitney: With our pilot, instead of taking an area, we took several streams from our electoral register: those who are over 70, so they are no longer eligible for jury service; those who are attaining franchise, so they are 18 within the life of the register; and service voters. From the MoD we have received no information whatsoever as such. We are promised it this week, so we are still waiting for that. On the other two, we have found that a lot of people have not been marking that they are over 70 on the register, so we have had to write out to quite a few of those, and again we are finding that there are a number that are deceased. It can be quite awkward once we have sent a letter out to them to find out that they have already informed people that they are deceased.
Julian Bassham: What we are finding at the moment is that because of the type of data that the DWP holds we do have deaths, movers and non-eligible nationalities included in the information that comes back to us. In terms of the deaths and movers what we do not know yet, particularly with the deaths, is whether the information is because a change has occurred between the data transfer date and us starting to write out- and we will know that at the end of the pilot-or whether it is because there is a problem with the source data.
Darren Whitney: We have found with the 18-year-olds that it has been considerably easier to match the data, because we hold a date of birth as well, so we have been able to match dates of birth with the DWP data, so we are getting a more accurate measure from that set of data.
Chair: Andrew, we will come back to you. If I could just remind colleagues, we have a lot of witnesses this morning-this is not addressed to you, Andrew-so can we keep the questions and answers fairly sharp? Are you finished, Andrew?
Mr Turner : Yes.
Chair: All right. Was there somebody else who wanted to come in on this? Eleanor, did you have anything?
Q73 Mrs Laing: If I may. Sorry, I didn’t want to interrupt Andrew in taking forward his point, because I think we are uncovering something of some importance here. I realise this is a subjective question, but have you been surprised at some of the things that you have discovered in doing the data matching? Has anything occurred that you did not expect?
Louise Stamp: I think the way the data was presented was a problem to us, because it is shown as multiple lines. DWP runs a people database, and they manually input addresses for people, while ours is a property database and we add the people, so it is a totally different way of matching data.
Q74 Mrs Laing: That is quite interesting. So you are working primarily with properties, whereas the DWP has people, and you are trying to find a way of matching the person to the property?
Louise Stamp: You might have little anomalies like "Rd" for Road, "Wy" for Way, in their data set. We have the correct-
Darren Whitney: We map to the National Gazetteer.
Julian Bassham: In terms of surprises, was it the fact that they have non-eligible nationality, was it the fact that they have people over a certain age who might be dead, and do they have movers on the data, was that a surprise to us? No. That was the limitation that we were aware of with the data set going into it. What has surprised me is that because it is not a property-based data set there is an inconsistency in the way in which the addresses are recorded. As a data set, we would have a certain standard, there are national standards in how addresses should be recorded. The discrepancy with that makes the data matching process much more difficult. In our case, for example, what we are doing taking forward the pilot is based on 75% of the data that came back, because we could not match to the property the 25%, because of the way the properties were held.
Q75 Mrs Laing: You could not match the property with-
Julian Bassham: With our property data, so that we have somewhere to write to.
Mrs Laing: Right. We have some sympathy with that, because we are, unusually, people who are used to going knocking on doors, looking for people, encouraging them to vote. So often you have on the electoral register, "43 Smith Street", and in fact there is no 43 but there is something called "Green Firs", or there is a block of flats which should have eight people, but in fact it doesn’t-we are used to seeing that, so we understand that.
Darren Whitney: We have found it incredibly complex because we are a mainly rural area in Stratford-on-Avon, so we have a lot of named properties. It could be that the person there or the person before has changed the property name and not identified it. Matching properties in rural areas has been quite difficult.
Q76 Stephen Williams: Chair, could I ask the three witnesses, what has been your normal practice in your district each September or October? Have you been used to going out and rebuilding the register every year?
Julian Bassham: I will start, because in the case of Southwark we do for the annual canvass the process where we rebuild the registry key. In fact we send out two letters, an initial letter and a reminder, to try and track people down. We then do some internal data matching to confirm people’s registration where possible against our council tax records, and then we have to do a follow-up exercise to visit properties to try and encourage people to be on the register. What we are looking at in our case as an inner London authority is that less than 50% of people will respond when that information is requested by post, and it is only when you have people knocking on people’s doors with more information, encouraging them to register, be it for voting or for credit reference purposes, that people then come on to the register. It is a battle, and when we say September or October we have to start in August and run all the way through to the end of November to achieve our response rate of properties of 92%.
Louise Stamp: We are totally different, because the way that the borough is made up with ethnic minorities, we have to personal canvass on stage one and stage two, so we have personal visits for two stages. That lasts for 10 weeks and we normally get back probably a 50% or 55% return. Then we get outs reminders-
Q77 Stephen Williams: Is that from the paper, sorry, or from the door knocking?
Louise Stamp: From the door knocking. It sometimes goes up to 65% on that, the two stages of people door knocking. That is the only way people respond. Then we have Canary Wharf with all the banks, and the banks own lots of the business flat properties, big dwellings. They rent them out for two or three weeks, and no one responds from those; and we have 12,000 gated properties where you just physically cannot get in-the concierge won’t let them in. So they are the ones that are posted out-that will bring back some. They will literally say to the canvassers, "It’s no use you trying because we’re paid to keep you out,"-so they won’t let them in.
Chair: We know the feeling.
Q78 Stephen Williams: Anyone who represents a city centre, as I do, will know that feeling, when you are trying to give people leaflets and they say, "You only come at election times."
Louise Stamp: Then we send our final reminder out and we are very, very lucky if we get 84% return, which is really quite annoying when we have done so much hard work to get people to register.
Q79 Stephen Williams: What was that final figure, sorry?
Louise Stamp: About 84%.
Q80 Stephen Williams: 84%, after the leaflet drop, the letters, the knocking on the doors?
Julian Bassham: All of these are household returns rather than necessarily a measure of accuracy or completeness in terms of people registering as would be the case under IER.
Darren Whitney: We are more like Julian in that we send out two letters, usually mid- to late August, then a reminder at the beginning of October. We then send out our canvassers to do a personal canvass on those that have not returned, and eventually we send them a letter, saying, if it is over two years, "You are being taken off the register, but here is a form if you want to re-register." We have a reasonable return: after doing all our checks with council tax and so on, we finally get between 95% and 96%.
Q81 Stephen Williams: That is sort of what I was expecting in terms of the range, but leaving aside the big change you are going to have with individual registration, if in 2014 with the current system you were not to do the letter drops and door knocking, your annual canvass, what state would you expect the register to be in by 2015?
Louise Stamp: We get 60% movements in our annual canvass period, so that is a massive churn, and then people changing their names because they have got married. None of this is a normal function for people to tell us-it is not like if you move you change your gas and change your electric, it is not a normal thing to register or to give new information, and we capture a good 60% during the annual canvass period which updates the register for us.
Q82 Stephen Williams: So if you were not doing an annual canvass in 2014, what percentage of households do you think would be still registered?
Louise Stamp: They would still be registered because they just remain on the register, but it would be very, very out of date. It would be very old information. Each month during the rolling registration period we probably get about 1,500 people going on each month, but we still get that 60% churn in the annual canvass period as well.
Julian Bassham: Just to follow on from what Louise is saying there, when you look at the changes through the year, for example, in Southwark there is an in-touch process where if somebody contacts the authority to say they have moved in, they get a registration form. The response rate to that is between 10% and 30% so we know that in any given month we are missing 70% to 90% of movers not joining the electoral roll. They wait until the annual canvass. If they continue to wait until the annual canvass and there is no annual canvass, then obviously that, coupled with a high population churn-not as high as Louise’s but around 30% to 40%-we could well be looking at a significant under-representation on the register of the eligible population of Southwark.
Darren Whitney: Again, our population change is not huge within Stratford-it is pretty constant. Our problem is not a transient population, but with quite an ageing population, we have to deal with people being deceased, and we have a large holiday home population, so we have to deal with those changing holiday homes within that register.
Q83 Stephen Williams: So even in a very stable, homogenous area, in demographic terms, there would still be significant detriment to the register by not doing the canvass in 2014?
Darren Whitney: Yes.
Louise Stamp: When it comes to an election time, the 11-day registration period would be unmanageable. Before a local election we get about 8,000 people trying to register. If we did not do an annual canvass I could not even think what that number would be. It would be unmanageable, because everyone would realise they are not registered and then all the forms would come in, and like yourselves, who go and canvass during that period-we get too many people trying to register.
Q84 Stephen Williams: I think, Chairman, there is a society of electoral registration officers, some sort of association or union or whatever. What do you think is the view of your professional peer group about not doing a canvass in 2014?
Louise Stamp: Probably the same as ours. They will listen to us, because they are there to represent us.
Julian Bassham: It does depend on the part of the country that you are in, and it depends on the demographics of the area. It is not one size fits all. In those areas with a high population churn, in the absence of an annual canvass, could data matching-with, for us, the DWP, but with other data sets-tell us who we are missing, to write out to, to invite to register under IER, for example? Early indications for us is that, considering what other data there is, they are probably not terribly accurate and we would not be capturing all of them or as many as we would capture now in the invite. That is not to say that they would then respond to the invite and then come on to the register at that stage.
Q85 Stephen Williams: I have been asking those questions, Chairman, in the context of the current situation of household registration. As a final question, given that we are moving to individual registration, do you think the absence of a canvass in 2014 means that the integrity of the register in 2015 will be even worse than if we were maintaining the existing situation?
Julian Bassham: The current proposals have the safeguard of using or extending the two-year rule, so that there is carryover, so that anybody who is eligible and already on the register will be eligible still in 2015 for the general election. The problem is going to emerge after 2015 when, as an urban inner London authority, we will see a significant fall-off in the register. It is going to be post-2015, going forward to the next boundary review, which will come up in the meantime-the next polling district review that will come up before 2020-and that will be the big problem year for the register, unless we find a mechanism, and our experience so far with data matching is that I don’t think the matching with DWP will be that mechanism, of capturing and encouraging those people to register under IER.
Darren Whitney: I think it will depend on what we are matching. I don’t think what we have been matching so far with the DWP would cover what we need. It depends on what identifiers are going to be used to check. As we have said, the addresses just are not good enough to match on that.
Q86 Chair: Just a quick one from me. Do you currently feel you have the resources to do this data matching process effectively, and do you feel that you are likely to get those in the future?
Julian Bassham: Speaking for my authority, we are very lucky in that we have an excellent LLPG-Local Land and Property Gazetteer-custodian who has done a huge amount of work and has a great deal of data matching knowledge, so through his skills of having improved us on that level we have been able to use that tool and tap into those resources. Going forward, the structure of electoral services offices and support in the ERO will have to change because the sort of work that we will be doing will be significantly different than what it has been in the past. Gone are the days of the gangmaster driving the team of canvassers to bang on as many doors as possible and get a result, and in comes a much different level of skills around data matching and examining IT systems and so on.
Louise Stamp: I think that is exactly right. We will need a lot more technical staff who can manage all the data matching, rather than, as now, staff experienced in elections and electoral law. It will be more having a separate group in the team who will deal with the technical aspects.
Q87 Chair: Darren, you only had 50% return on your first run?
Darren Whitney: No, we had a good return on ours. We had a lack of staff, though, and I had problems getting canvassers, and I will have problems getting canvassers later in this year, I know. It is a situation I can only see getting worse. I am not getting any extra resource for what we do.
Julian Bassham: The resource issue is in the context of that some of us are pilot authorities, because we knew we had certain local skill sets that we could tap into, not necessarily within our direct teams. In the context of the reduction in local government spending generally, considering whether those resources would be available going forward and what resources would be required to do the process as currently envisaged, I don’t think we are anywhere near where we need to be.
Q88 Sheila Gilmore: Just a very quick question. I certainly know in my constituency where the problem areas are: go down a street of terraced houses, and everybody is on the register; go elsewhere, and hardly anybody is. Do you think the data matching exercise is worth the effort, or would it be better to target the areas that we all know are under-registered?
Julian Bassham: For me the one area where data matching with the DWP gives a ray of hope in terms of stopping a significant drop-off in the register, is that while there are problems with the matching, what we can say is that of those currently on the register we could match 50%, and in some areas it could be as high as 90%. Therefore if there was some sort of passive transfer of their details, so their NI number and date of birth came across from the DWP, and those people were moved over to IER, then resources could be much better targeted at those areas that we know are a problem. That is not the settled population, it is not the terraced house, but it is the high churn population in the flats, the BME groups that don’t respond, the youth groups that don’t respond. If we were able to look at some sort of passive transfer over to IER for those voters, we could have a much better targeting of resources on those problem areas.
Q89 Mrs Laing: Have you been able to make an initial assessment, however difficult that might be, between the population you identify through your data matching exercise and the people who are eligible to vote? Presumably they are not the same numbers. Have you any idea of the percentage of the people who are physically there in the area who are eligible to vote?
Louise Stamp: Just in 2,700 matches we captured 76 people we knew were foreign nationals. Some Chinese people work for the Chinese banks in the City, for example, and lots of Americans come over and work in the City, and they are all short-term, so we know those properties are always populated by foreign nationals-not eligible.
Julian Bassham: In terms of the nationality eligibility criteria, it is important to say that the ERO does not retain the nationality for people that are not on the register. Therefore the only way we can do this is by physically looking at forms for previous years, and it is only where those people have given that information and signed a form saying that they do not want to vote that we would have it at all.
Q90 Mrs Laing: Why do you not retain it?
Julian Bassham: We have no need to. It would be disproportionate for the purposes of the electoral register. The electoral register is there for the people who have registered, not for those who should not be on the register. However, even given that very, very small self-selecting group, on the missing electors that we received back from DWP we can say that in our case between 4% and 6% are definitely non-qualifying nationals in that information.
Louise Stamp: If DWP had nationality that would have made our life a lot easier, because we would have just filtered those out, all the nationalities not eligible.
Q91 Mrs Laing: But the DWP do not have nationality?
Louise Stamp: No.
Julian Bassham: As far as we are aware, no.
Darren Whitney: We did not get the information, anyway, on that. We have a small percentage of voters that we can check via council tax records, and information has come up through that and through our checking through benefits, when we write to them we get no response electoral-wise, so we realise that there are a percentage of people not registering.
Q92 Mrs Laing: Can I just follow up on that last one? I am aware of the time, but what you are telling us is so interesting. Have you come across a reluctance on the part of people to register, a really positive-well, I will not emulate the language, "Go away, I am not the least bit interested"?
Darren Whitney: Yes, until they want a mobile phone or a loan or something like that. Then we get a call saying, "Can I get on the electoral register?"
Louise Stamp: We send summonses out to around 75 or 80 people every year, and two years ago we fined five people £365 each for not registering or refusing to provide information, and this year seven people went to court. Two were repeat offenders, so the others were fined £365 and those two were fined £465, and they still repeat offend and don’t register.
Julian Bassham: It is quite a blunt characteristic, but basically 50% to 60% is the maximum turnout that we achieved recently in Southwark, 50% to 60% of people register via the post without being banged on the door and chased down. So 30%-odd of people who eventually we get registered are not really interested, they only go on for credit purposes and because we are going to fine them.
Q93 Chair: Okay, one last one from me, perhaps to Louise. I think everyone on this side of the table has had the experience of knocking on the door, a lady comes to the door and you talk about whatever politics you want to talk about, and they say, "I don’t do that, that’s my husband." In my experience 30 years ago in Tower Hamlets, that had a nuanced effect with the Bangladeshi community where the wife would always push the husband to the door. Is this going to have a significant impact in terms of registration, because we will be collectively writing to five people in the household individually, rather than the head of the household, which some cultures take very, very seriously?
Louise Stamp: Without a doubt that is going to have a major effect. It is still the head of household that the woman will pass the forms to, and in voting, in polling stations, we have to provide training on personation, and it will be the head of the household who takes each of his members of the family into the booths and we have to ask him to leave, because they are not allowed to influence the vote. That is a major, major problem. Everything has to be provided in Bengali in all our polling stations. Everything about the guidance is all translated in Bengali, so it is going to be a major problem.
Darren Whitney: Our canvass forms go in alphabetical order and we still get an issue with people changing the order on their canvass form because they are the head of household. That still occurs.
Julian Bassham: Leaving aside the cultural sensitivities for a moment, the fact that instead of getting one person in the house, be that the husband, be that the wife, who just does it because the form comes through, means you are massively increasing the number of compliant people that you expect. Because it is the compliant population that fill out forms and send them back, and if you are expecting one person for a household to do that, it is a very different thing to expect in some cases five people, and at the same time also providing additional information which will not be given out on the doorstep, such as the National Insurance number.
Chair: Julian, Louise and Darren, thank you very much indeed. That has been very informative. Thank you for coming along to help us this morning.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Simon Woolley, Director, Operation Black Vote, gave evidence.
Q94 Chair: Simon, welcome and thanks for giving us your time and hopefully your expertise to help inform the Committee as we do our report. Is there anything you want to say initially to kick us off?
Simon Woolley: Yes. Thank you very much.
Chair: Please do.
Simon Woolley: First and foremost, thank you for the invitation. I think that it is on one level very good timing, given the recent summer disturbances. I know some of you around this room know very well what I do as Director of Operation Black Vote. Our organisation began on the basis of voter registration. We started that, as a matter of fact, in no small measure as a response to a civil disturbance that occurred in Brixton in 1996 after the death of Wayne Douglas, so there are similarities in terms of the community response to alienation, frustration and civil disturbance. Following the disturbances that we saw over the summer, a group of individuals, church leaders and community activists have already engaged on a massive community level in a response to what occurred. Part of that response we hope will be the largest political empowerment programme ever seen in this country. Key to that is political understanding and voter registration.
Our response is twofold: one, political empowerment, and two, economic enterprise. We feel that this twin-track approach will empower communities to believe that they have some better control over their lives.
When we began voter registration back in 1996 it was with the responsibility of the local authorities, and some local authorities encouraged us. We argued, "Look, don’t be angry, get involved." We felt then, as we do now, that the bridge between alienation, anger and frustration is civic participation. It is not the only answer but it is a key aspect. In many respects we are following in the footsteps of Dr Martin Luther King, who did the same in the southern states of America.
Some local authorities positively engage with us-Southwark, Haringey, Hackney, Leicester, Birmingham-and we did see very good improvement with those local authorities. Although they said their figures were relatively high we pointed out to them that of course although some of them were saying they are 80%, 90%, 95%, we argued that because one house was registered or one person in a house was registered, that was classed as 100%, but that does not even begin to tell what happens behind the doors. Our understanding was that there were a great number that were not registered.
Our approach was that you had to move away from that dry discourse of saying, "It’s your duty to register to vote." We argued that you really had to give a fundamental and comprehensive reason why people ought to engage: because they want better schools, because they want decent homes, better health care, and being registered to vote will give them a voice. Not to ask politicians, like yourselves, but to demand-demand justice.
That message began to get through. The local authorities would say, "You are our partners, you go out and articulate why people should engage." We raised the numbers. In those early days, the national figures as articulated by researchers, such as Muhammad Anwar from Warwick University, were around 26% to 30% non-voter registration of black and minority ethnic communities. The largest in those groups were African, around about 40% but then there were Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, all around 26% to 30% non-voter registration, in comparison to 6% from the white communities. That shows a massive gap in terms of alienation.
When we used to engage people on the door or in the street, people would say, "Look, why are we engaging in an institution that neither listens to us nor represents us?" At the time there were four black Members of Parliament, very few if any local authority leaders or chief executives. So the institutions look shockingly white, the policies that were coming out of this building and other buildings did not seem to work for us, with high levels of stop and search, as there are now, and our communities or too many of our communities remained anchored on the trajectory of social mobility, closing those gaps.
So our articulation was political. We have to be the architects of change, we have to get involved. We have to register to vote, we have to vote, we have to put our representatives up for selection and election.
I am not quite sure when it was, but when the Electoral Commission came about the responsibility for voter registration moved from local authorities to the Electoral Commission. That was a big and dramatic change for us, because no longer could we go to local authorities, willing local authorities, to be our partners. The Electoral Commission took responsibility and I would argue in those early days that they got advertising executives who had little or no understanding of what the challenges were and they were not successful in engaging in an effective way with the disenfranchisement of black communities.
Chair: May we ask a few follow-up questions, Simon?
Simon Woolley: Yes.
Q95 Andrew Griffiths: Thank you, Simon. Let us start with what do you feel is going to be the impact on the BME communities of individual voter registration?
Simon Woolley: Well, I am a democrat. Our organisation is based on democratic principles so we argue that this is a good idea in its purest form; that each and every person should individually register to vote.
The challenge of course is that we have seen, we know, there is a monstrous gap between certain ethnic minority groups in civic participation, and so in those early days, and particularly if there is not the willingness to recognise the particular challenge, that would see an even greater drop of numbers of BME communities registered on the forms.
Q96 Andrew Griffiths: You fear that is what could be a consequence that you could face?
Simon Woolley: I think it is almost certain that that will happen. What we have to do is say, "Look, that is going to happen, we have to brace ourselves for that," but we must mitigate with particular actions to make sure that in the short, medium and long term we not only get it back to the level it is now, but we use it as a fantastic opportunity to raise the bar and ensure that many more people are on the register.
Q97 Andrew Griffiths: There are of course many reasons why people do not participate, why they do not register to vote. In your experience, Simon, if we are looking to try and find cause and then have an effect on that cause, how important do you think things such as confusion over the need to register, language issues, that type of issue versus the social demographics of the BME community-that they are younger, that they are more likely to be mobile and moving house, that they are more likely to rent-are, versus the cultural element? Are they suspicious of registering, or are they suspicious of the process?
Simon Woolley: Andrew, you make some good points and those three factors are all elements. However, the largest element, which you did not mention, is really the political education message that inspires people. You heard from the officials on local authorities-and we recognised this back in the day, so to speak-that people would want to go on the register for a mobile phone. Well, they did go on the register but they still wouldn’t vote. This Committee surely must be focused on people engaging, and we have to make the case, "This is for the well-being of your family and your children and your children’s children," and that is a tough call. That is a tough call particularly where people are saying, "Why bother?" Of course there are other factors: gender, socio-economic, certain cultural groups. We talked about the Bangladeshi community, and some in the African community need addressing too. We have to put it in the round, but really target and focus our energy on that key element that makes that political case for somebody making the step.
Q98 Andrew Griffiths: You made the distinction there between some of the ethnic groups, and we see for instance a big difference in participation among the Asian communities and the black African community. Why do you think that is?
Simon Woolley: Andrew, we have to be careful, because it is very easy to make sweeping statements about the Asian community and the African community. What we really mean are some communities within the Asian community, such as the Gujarati community and the Sikh community that find themselves in better socio-economic positions, rather than the Bangladeshi and the Pakistani community. I think that if you are looking at what are the distinguishing features, we see socioeconomics as part of that factor. There are some Muslim communities that are particularly poor but some leaders galvanise the vote because they see their representatives that will get elected and they participate. So it is complex. I think that the Committee needs the ability to articulate a nuanced discourse as to why some Asian groups register and some do not, why some Caribbeans do and some do not.
Q99 Mrs Laing: Do you also notice an age profile difference in the way in which people are inclined to register to vote or not?
Simon Woolley: Yes, we do. Old school Caribbeans that come with a particular mindset of Queen and country would go to the polling booths on bended knees, but second and third generation who felt the harsh effects of alienation say, "This country doesn’t like us, doesn’t want us, so why am I getting involved?" There is a generation split and we have to make a concerted effort. My son is six and I take him to the polling booth with me and it is just what him and his dad do, so an education programme that bridges the generations and gets this process as a normality is part of the answer.
Q100 Mrs Laing: Interesting that you mention an education process, because do you think that enough is being done in schools? We see far more, hundreds of times more, children going through this place every week, every month, than we did 10 or 15 years ago. The Houses of Parliament could function only for school parties if it had to, you get the impression, because there are so many of them. Is it working at all?
Simon Woolley: It is good. I have been involved in the Youth Parliament and spoken to some of those students. I guess what we have to ensure is that the school parties that come here are not the more affluent schools that you would expect with the kind of school trips here. We have to get to those schools that are really on what might be described as the margins, where some of their parents are engaging in surviving, not really on the front foot in terms of ensuring that their children come to Parliament. We have to get their children here too, inspire them, plant the seed, and hopefully we will not be in this chronic situation where you have to try and convince, if you like, a stroppy 15-year-old that in a couple of years’ time they will be eligible to register to vote.
Q101 Mrs Laing: Can I also take you back to your opening remarks, where I think it is really important what you said about the statistics showing that if one person is registered for a particular household under the current system then that of course is statistically 100% correct, because the person with responsibility has declared that he-and I am making an assumption here, which is the point of my question-is registered to vote so that is it? To what extent do you find it difficult to get women to stand up to the social pressures around them not to make their own voice heard?
Simon Woolley: It is difficult but not impossible. It is not impossible when you have the resources to effectively engage, both with the men and the women, that they have a voice and that they have something valuable to say. Also with the so-called leaders, male leaders, to say, "You benefit from this because our community as a whole has a greater voice in terms of what schools and what health care we have." It is just about that face-to-face engagement that breaks down the barriers, with people often saying, "It can’t be done"-it can.
Q102 Mrs Laing: By face-to-face engagement. There is a statistic upon which you might be able to comment that shows that where there is a woman candidate or women candidates in a constituency, women in the electorate are 4% more likely to vote.
Simon Woolley: I can give you another statistic, that when there is a BME candidate in a BME area those would-be voters are 25% more likely to vote, so we need more women in this House, we need more BME candidates male and female, particularly female, and people will feel that it belongs to all of us and not a few.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Q103 Chair: If there are no further questions, I have one last one, Simon. I am particularly taken by the sense in which-I should not put words in your mouth, as it is my view-our electoral process is very highly bureaucratised and we have lost a lot of the excitement and a lot of the interest that pioneers gave their lives for, to spread the franchise. That is one of the important things that I will take away, and I would like to see in our report ultimately, about how we bring that back to our electoral process.
I will be very specific with my last question, Simon. In terms of the technical side of these things, in terms of the stuff that electoral officers and others have to do and councils have to do, is there one that cries out to you at the top of your list that should happen to register more people, to get more people registered?
Simon Woolley: Clearly we all need safeguards and we cannot be reckless in our enthusiasm to get individuals on the register, but we must not make it overcomplicated. We really mustn’t. Not only must we not make it overcomplicated, but as you suggested, Graham, we need to inspire: we need to inspire all those different sectors who feel powerless in having an effective voice to say, "Step one in this is registering to vote, and we as a nation want to ensure that you have the tools to hold you and these institutions to account." Don’t forget, don’t ever forget, that we need to inspire our communities to be positive, active, effective citizens.
Q104 Chair: I think as part of what I call the bureaucratisation of the electoral process we have paid far more attention to the unacceptable but nonetheless very tiny minority of abuses and personation and so on, whereas probably the bigger crime is the thousands and possibly millions of people who are disenfranchised because they are, in one way or another, distant from the process.
Simon Woolley: We have seen some data that suggested that 50% or 60% of Africans were not on the electoral register, and that to me is a crime, that so many people are without a voice.
Chair: We will try and help do something about that, and we will be able to move the process a few inches forward as we come together and write our report.
Simon, it has been fascinating, and thank you very much for your evidence today. Thank you so much.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Cristina Sarb, Public Policy Adviser, Scope, gave evidence.
Q105 Chair: Welcome, Cristina. How are you?
Cristina Sarb: Well, thank you.
Chair: Good to see you. We are all very friendly here, we are here to try and pick your brains, so don’t worry about us. We are all trying to work together to create a better electoral system and we really need your help on that. Is there anything you would like to say, Cristina, to start us off?
Cristina Sarb: Definitely, I think at Scope we are very encouraged by the initiative to introduce electoral registration and we hope that as part of the process of changing the way in which we register the Government will also look closely at the way in which both the registration system as well as the wider voting system can be made more accessible to disabled people.
If I may I will just give a very, very brief overview of Scope’s expertise in this area. Scope’s Polls Apart campaign for accessible democracy has been working for the last two decades or so on the barriers that prevent disabled people from voting and from participating in elections. Our starting point in looking at the individual registration is that changing the system is right and individual registration provides a necessary step towards accessible elections. Things like electronic registration, help in registration, are all potential benefits for disabled people; things like fulfilling an individual’s access needs through the registration process is again a potential benefit, so we do see great advantages from shifting to an individual electoral registration system. We are aware of potential challenges that may arise from the shift and we would be keen to ensure that both the transition to the individual electoral registration system as well as the IER system itself are successful as possible and with disabled people’s needs in mind from the very beginning. So I will leave it for the moment at that.
Q106 Chair: Thank you, Cristina. Can I apologise to you for the acoustics in this room? They are really awful, and don’t hesitate to ask Members to repeat their questions if you don’t hear them properly.
Cristina Sarb: That is fine. I will try to speak up as well.
Q107 Sheila Gilmore: One of the proposals, the rollout of individual voter registration, will create the situation where anybody who wants a postal vote in the next general election, 2015, when it is really coming into force, would definitely have to go through the individual registration process, given that there has been a big expansion in postal voting, and it is one of the things which can particularly assist those with physical disabilities to vote. Do you have concerns about this, and do you have a suggestion about how this could be addressed, because I am conscious that recently people have been quite used to getting a postal vote virtually automatically once they have applied for it, unless they tick the "One election only" box, but a lot of people have reached the stage of-and we are finding that on the doorsteps, I think-saying, "Oh, yes, I get a postal vote," and they will be anticipating it coming?
Cristina Sarb: Yes, definitely. I think we do. You are absolutely right and we do have significant concerns that people, disabled people, may lose their right to postal voting unless they register under the new system, and there are almost two issues involved there. There is a question of the extent to which disabled people would be informed of the fact that they do have to register individually to access postal voting through either the write up process or the reminder process, because we need to remember the scale of the change. There will be a lot of different aspects that will need to be communicated to voters, including disabled people, so we do have a concern that that may be lost among the many various things that people will need to be informed of.
I think you rightly picked up on the fact that postal voting provides an alternative for people who find going to a polling station inaccessible, and our Polls Apart research at the last general election found that there are still around two-thirds of polling stations that do have one or more serious access barriers for disabled people. So I think we are really concerned that unless people can access postal voting, that will end up disfranchising quite a significant proportion of disabled people.
I would say there is a question linked to the carryover as well because a situation may arise where someone responds to the request to register by individual registration but fails to successfully complete that registration if they are carried over and will not be informed of the fact that they have been carried forward and not registered on the basis of individual registration. They can reasonably expect to be getting a postal vote but will get to the stage where-because they haven’t been told of that-they will not be able to vote by post, so that will happen and is important.
Q108 Sheila Gilmore: Are there any aspects of the process of individual voter registration which you think might be difficult for any particular disabled groups, perhaps particularly those with learning disabilities?
Cristina Sarb: In terms of the positives, we were really pleased that the Electoral Commission has been given the power to draft the individual registration form and EROs will have to use those forms. That will, to a certain extent, make sure there is a consistency across different local areas and that the form used is accessible to disabled people and people get the same service wherever they live. That is a real plus with the new system. Where we would have concerns is around the choice of personal identifiers, and one area that needs to be looked at more carefully is whether there may be disabled people who do not have a National Insurance number, and what the exemptions process would look like. I think from the White Paper, that would then either require further documentation, things like photographic identification or potentially even a face to face context or attending in person to the registration office, which, for some disabled people, may not be a viable option-for example, people with mobility impairment. I think that is around the choice of the individual personal identifiers. As I mentioned briefly, given the added complexity to the system and the fact that people will be asked to provide more identifiers, it is also a question that during the rollout people are told of the assistance they can get in filling in the forms, and that is really crucial for making the system accessible for disabled people as well.
Q109 Sheila Gilmore: One of the things that was introduced to help people with the passport forms was a system of checking at the post offices. Post offices are the kind of place-you may have suggestions of other places-where people might go relatively regularly. It certainly improved the speed of the passport service where obvious errors-signing outside the box or all the other things that you can fall foul of in a passport application-are checked then and there, and you can do another form rather than waiting for it to go to that place and come back. Do you think something like that would work?
Cristina Sarb: That would be a good initiative and I think it would work.
Q110 Sheila Gilmore: Are there any other places where you think people might be able to go to where it might be useful to do some outreach?
Cristina Sarb: I think post offices are a good place to start. Nothing comes off the top of my head but I am happy to come back to that issue.
Q111 Mr Turner: Can I just ask, one of the problems when people can’t get into the polling station, for example, is that on the one hand it is very good if you can fit the place with a ramp or something like that, but on the other hand, the council may decide to close it down altogether, and then people would have to travel from one village-200 people, not really worth it-moving it a long way away. What do you think of that?
Cristina Sarb: I think we have looked at the accessibility of polling stations for a while and we have seen certain improvements around that, but definitely progress has been, in a way, slowing down. We have seen one per cent increase from the last general election in terms of greater access for disabled people, and just two per cent from 2001, so I think that has been disappointing. One of the proposals that we made in last year’s report is that the way the system works in Northern Ireland may provide a good alternative: if the polling station is inaccessible for them, people can be allocated to a different polling station that would fit their needs. In terms of improving the accessibility of the system, that would, to a certain extent, make potentially a huge difference-for a small proportion of people, but that would still count.
Q112 Andrew Griffiths: Cristina, can I just touch on the issue of residential care? I think, as candidates, we have all been around homes within our constituencies and had the conversation with the care home manager or the matron or whoever it might be that is in charge, and sometimes it is easy to get access and sometimes it is more difficult. There is obviously a very important and crucial role that residential home managers play in this. What do you think that we can be doing to improve that role but also to make sure that those who are living in residential care are not disenfranchised because their individual care home manager is not as active or as proactive in ensuring that they take part in the political process?
Cristina Sarb: I think that is absolutely right. There is a lot of emphasis in the White Paper around ensuring that the register will be as complete as possible and, for that to happen, the disabled people living in a residential care context must also be included. You are absolutely right that there is a need for guidance around the specific responsibilities that managers of residential care homes have within the registration process, and the wider voting process as well, to ensure that they know how to support and enable disabled people to register and then exercise their right to vote. I think you are right to also point out that anecdotally we have heard of instances where people may have been disenfranchised within the residential care context, often because of different assumptions being made about people’s capacity to vote as well. I think there is need for guidance around that as well in terms of making sure that the presumption is made that someone has the capacity to vote-that is the same kind of presumption that there is in the Mental Capacity Act.
Q113 Mrs Laing: I note some of the things you have said in your paper about your concerns, which are clearly well founded. In trying to get round those concerns, can you envisage, from Scope’s point of view, a system whereby all people who are registered as disabled could or should be contacted by their local authority? Do you think that would be practical? I am showing my ignorance about how local authorities or the Electoral Commission could identify people who might be in need of greater assistance in registering to vote and in overcoming a problem, but is there a statistical way in which you could envisage that happening?
Cristina Sarb: A way around the problem of making sure that local authorities reach all disabled people within their area-I think a lot of local authorities do this-would be to engage with organisations of disabled people at the local level. Through those means, disabled people could be informed of the change to the system. Your point about how you make sure people who need more assistance can get it is by being captured. I think one of the key advantages that we see for individual registration is the fact that it would enable local authorities and EROs to gather information about people’s access needs at the point of registration. That would enable people to, for instance, get their polling card in a format that is accessible to them and subsequently get any further correspondence that is related to voting in a format that is accessible to them, and by doing that you ensure that people are in touch with the registration process and the voting process, and you ensure their ongoing participation in elections as well.
Q114 Mrs Laing: That is very helpful but I am wary of putting even more of a burden upon local authorities. We had evidence from people representing local authorities, who I think are still here in the room, about the lack of resources-the extra work that they are now required to do for which they have no extra resources. Personally, I am always concerned about putting the burden of action upon the public body when, in fact, if we are talking about all working together to try to improve the system, it might be possible to encourage organisations which represent and look after disabled people-and I am aware that that is a huge spectrum of organisations-to identify people within their membership who need help with registration and for them to do something about it?
Cristina Sarb: Yes. To go back to the initial part of that question, one of the aspects that we are very much aware of is that the general background against which elections happen is very much one of a lack of resources, with a lot of local authorities being asked to deliver a lot potentially in an under-resourced environment. I think in terms of asking for those access needs to be captured, we do see some of the better performing local authorities already doing this and being proactive. So in a sense it would not be asking local authorities, as I think you said at the beginning of the question, to do anything extra, but it would ensure consistency for disabled people, making sure that they get a consistent level of service wherever they live. But where local authorities do take a more proactive approach, that has had a massive impact and it is welcome, and had a good impact in terms of increasing registration levels as well as voting. I think there is definitely a role for organisations like Scope, and other DPOs-disabled people’s organisations-to make sure that we overcome some of the challenges that exist in relation to the individual registration, that the system works and the transition works as smoothly as possible. So there is a role both for our organisations and for local authorities to make sure that people are informed.
Mrs Laing: Thank you very much.
Q115 Chair: Great. This is the last question from me, Cristina. My guess is that most Members of Parliament represent constituencies that fall within normally one county council district or urban district council or borough, and it is quite unusual for that to be different, but we have just had a proposal about the boundary changes, and one option, again speaking personally, is to go from one unitary authority that I deal with very happily to three, possibly more. Now this may cause headaches for various people around this table, but is that an opportunity, Cristina, to raise the standard and improve the best practice across the UK? Is there, for some of us at least, a silver lining to this daft plan?
Cristina Sarb: I think definitely there is a silver lining there in terms of making sure that best practice is shared among local authorities, about what are some of the best ways in which you can ensure how elections are run, how the registration process is run, is made more accessible to disabled people, so definitely-to end on a positive note.
Chair: I feel better. Cristina, thank you so much for your time this morning. We take your evidence very seriously and hope you will see some of it reflected in our final report.
Cristina Sarb: Thank you.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society, gave evidence.
Q116 Chair: Hello, Katie, how are you? You are probably a regular, aren’t you? You are very blasé about appearing in front of the Select Committee. Really nice of you to come along this morning and we look forward to hearing what you have to say. Would you like to say anything to start off, Katie, or are you happy-
Katie Ghose: Just very briefly, and I have listened to the other witnesses so I won’t repeat; I will try and add. Thank you very much for the opportunity. We welcome the switch from household to individual registration, which we think is long overdue. Our main concern is about completeness and how to avoid a potentially devastating collapse in registration, which could be as much as 20% by the time of the next general election. I think we want to see a combination of measures taken, the first of which is getting the ethos and the communication of that ethos right. We think the ambition for all of us should be 100%. That is what we should be driving for, and we think we should distinguish registration, where we think there should be a sense of duty, from voting, which will remain a matter of personal choice. I would echo a lot of what Simon Woolley has said about civic participation and taking the opportunity to give reasons to people rather than it being a dry exercise.
We want to see EROs up their game across the board with proper support, resourcing and scrutiny, and we firmly want to see reconsideration of retention of the household canvass in 2014. I was very interested to hear what the local authorities were already saying about the risks of losing that. We want to see the barriers minimised. We think there should be a lot of flexibility around the personal identifiers so that you reduce the barriers to people coming forward to register, and sanctions are important there.
Finally, we have to make it easy for people, so let’s look at later registration than we have now and let’s explore election day registration. I suppose we feel that we know that asking people to give personal information is a barrier, so we need a kind of compensatory package wrapped up in a collective ambition to get every last voter registered and we think that is essential to make it a trickle rather than a tidal wave of unregistered voters. So we are hoping to see a very sort of holistic approach by the Government.
Chair: Excellent; thank you very much. Andrew has to leave, so I am going to ask Andrew Turner to pop the first question.
Q117 Mr Turner: That is very kind. You are clearly concerned that the Government’s proposals will result in a drop. What can we do to make more people involved?
Katie Ghose: I think, as I have mentioned, serious reconsideration needs to be given to keeping the national household canvass in 2014. We think that 2014 is a really critical year, not just looking ahead to the general election in 2015 but also because the next boundary imprint will be taken at the end of 2015, so we just feel these years are critical and you need to have some front-loading of effort to make sure that gets as many people registered as possible.
We also think that we should retain the sanction or the threat of sanction for individuals. I was hearing an interesting anecdote about Rhyl West, I think it is the most deprived ward in Wales, where because there was a really proactive ERO there, they had a tremendous increase in the registration. There are migrants there, there are unemployed people, and there are real problems of getting people to register. Apparently, the form was very well designed and there was a lot of excellent door-to-door targeted canvassing, but the fine, or the threat of the fine, interestingly, was put sort of centre stage on the form. That tells us something perhaps about the importance of that; not to say that it should be a punitive system, but there does seem to be something about having a threat of a fine that gives people a little bit more of an impetus. Those are a couple of things that could be done to sort of stop a wave of unregistered voters.
Q118 Mr Turner: Could you just tell me, are any premises now not allowed to be used for voting?
Katie Ghose: I don’t know. That is something that we would need to check.
Q119 Andrew Griffiths: Thank you, Katie. I am really interested in election day registration. I think it is quite an exciting thing. As somebody who has fought a lot of elections, knocked on a lot of doors, when you find somebody who says, "Oh, yeah, I’ll vote for you-but I’m not on the electoral register," it is so, so frustrating. Obviously, that prospect of being able to register people up to the very last minute is something that, from a politician’s perspective, has a lot of appeal. Have you had any discussions with the Minister or with government about election day registration first of all?
Katie Ghose: We haven’t, no. We would very much welcome that opportunity. We think it is well worth looking at.
Q120 Andrew Griffiths: What are the barriers do you think? What things would we need to overcome to make EDR work?
Katie Ghose: Some of it would be practical and around resourcing, so one of the things we would anticipate-and we have heard some interesting examples this morning of local authorities talking about the workload over the period of time, that very busy election period, registration and so on-is that there would have to be systems in place, because you would then have a couple of different things going on on election day; you would have registration and you would have voting. There are plenty of examples in American states where this has happened and there has been a significant upturn in voting. Those are some of the kind of practical issues that would need to be looked at, but what I would like is for us to start off with the ambition and the principle, as you have outlined it, and say we should allow people to do this. The other important point is that we have quite short election periods in this country compared with some places, and people do get excited, alive and interested, and particularly if we are going to have more elections that are a bit more on a knife edge, that is going to be a critical period. We need to start with the principle and the ambition and then do a cost-benefit analysis and look at the practicalities.
Q121 Andrew Griffiths: You touched on cost-benefit analysis. Has anybody, do you know, done any work on the kind of costs involved in introducing election day registration?
Katie Ghose: There is an American Demos report; they looked at election day registration in America. Obviously it is a very different system there. I am not aware of any, but there may be evidence that is brought out in this country.
Q122 Andrew Griffiths: You talked about data and personal identifiers. First of all, can you clarify-you said there needs to be more flexibility in relation to personal identifiers; what kind of documentation do you think should be acceptable?
Katie Ghose: We understand that National Insurance numbers have obviously been put out there as the one. We would like items such as passports or driving licences to be looked at as well. We would like a very practical look at the likely voter experience. Are we more likely to have our driving licence in our wallet and to hand than our National Insurance number, which we have to ferret around in a drawer for? We would like a very, very practical look at this. We understand about security and fraud and so on, but passports and driving licences would be obvious candidates.
Q123 Andrew Griffiths: All right, and you also talked about people’s reticence to give data in relation to registering to vote and that is not something I have heard a great deal about. Can you touch a little bit more on that and is there any evidence? Has anybody done any sort of specific work to look at why providing data would be more likely to prevent people from registering?
Katie Ghose: I think the one I would highlight is the Northern Ireland experience where the introduction of the identifier, the National Insurance number, did seem to put people off.
Q124 Andrew Griffiths: You think it was providing the data rather than the individual registration process?
Katie Ghose: There is definitely evidence for that: a personal identifier is information that people may feel they don’t just want to give over. It does seem to be a barrier for some people.
Q125 Andrew Griffiths: In relation to the canvass, you are predicting a substantial drop-off as a result of that, yet, as I understand it, we are allowing voters registered the previous year to be carried over. So why do you estimate that there will be such a dramatic drop-off as a result of not having the canvass?
Katie Ghose: Yes. In part because it will only be people who are already on there who will be part of that individual write-out, so there are inevitably going to be people not already on the register who would have then been picked up by the annual household canvass if it didn’t go ahead in that year.
Q126 Andrew Griffiths: If the canvass does not go ahead, do you think there are things that can be done to mitigate that or is it only a case of unless we have the household canvass, there is very little else that can be done?
Katie Ghose: I think that is where the local authorities’ experience is absolutely essential and I was very struck in hearing their evidence again how patchy and how different and how diverse that experience is. I gather, though I am not sure-it is slightly difficult to make out from the White Paper-that there may be a household inquiry form to properties where no one is registered, so that might help to fill a bit of the gap, and there could, of course, be other measures put in place, but I find it hard to see, without having that annual canvass and the individual write-out, how we are going to avoid really quite a significant drop-off in that year. We know, the evidence tells us, that door-to-door canvassing is really important, particularly in areas where there is deprivation, where it might be the one thing that would make a difference to get somebody on to the register.
Q127 Mrs Laing: Thank you. Just taking forward this issue of when people can register; you mentioned that in this country we have a short election period, but do you think that fixed-term Parliaments will change that, because at the moment we don’t have short election periods for local elections, because we know, every single year, that there are going to be some elections somewhere on the first Thursday in May? Once we know when a general election is going to take place years in advance, does that not change that?
Katie Ghose: It is a really interesting question, and we don’t know. I think that for the purposes of registration, even if there was then going to be more active campaigning for a longer period by the political parties, what is really important for registration, however long the campaign has been, is that last burst of intensity when the media has become really excited and there are lots of debates. I think what you need to ask when you are thinking about registration is, when is the period of most excitement and engagement, and can we try to capture people then? I would have thought-I don’t know because fixed-term Parliaments are new-that even if there has been a relatively long run-up, you are still going to have that short run-up, a week or two before election day, a sort of feedin period when people who might not have bothered before might get a bit interested. If we can capture them then in the last few days, and on election day itself, I would have thought that would be positive.
Q128 Mrs Laing: Do you think there will be any additional cost? Well, it’s not do you think, but do you consider, since you have experience of these matters, that there will be an additional cost to local authorities and to the Electoral Commission and so on of registering people in those last few days, and indeed on election day, if that were allowed?
Katie Ghose: Yes; there is bound to be a cost. I would like the costs and the benefits to be looked at, I guess, over the whole cycle-again, very much driven by the fact that we are an old democracy and we should be getting our act together and getting optimum levels of registration; that is what we should be driving at. There may be a cost in those few days and election day registration, but if the benefits are very great because you have captured people at the time when they are most interested, that may mean you could use less resource at other points, at quieter times in the political cycle.
Q129 Mrs Laing: All right, good point. I was shocked to find yesterday, when we had the statistics of how many people there are in each constituency and how many electors there are in each ward in every constituency in the country, that in two constituencies that I looked at-not my own I have to say-the number of electors in 2011 is approximately 3,000 fewer than in 2010 when the general election took place. We know for a fact that it is not that 3,000 people have left those constituencies-there hasn’t been massive migration from those parts of the country. Would that not suggest to you that people will bother to register when there is a general election coming up, but then in the following year, they won’t bother to register and, therefore, I am afraid, that invalidates your last point?
Katie Ghose: We know that there are different levels of interest in local and general elections. I am not giving a firm view; it is very much for the local authorities with the expertise who really need to sort out where resources need to be put. There is a significant problem here of under-resourcing. We do think this is an area that needs to be properly resourced. I suppose I am just saying that we need to take into account when people are most likely to be triggered into registering across the whole of the political cycle.
Q130 Mrs Laing: But if people bothered to register in 2010 immediately before a general election, don’t they carry a certain amount of personal responsibility then to register the following year? Could it not be argued that if a local authority and others went to the trouble of finding those people, getting their names on the register and giving them the opportunity to vote, and then in the following year they just didn’t return the forms, is there not a degree of personal responsibility upon the individual voter or potential voter?
Katie Ghose: I agree in general terms. This is an area where there is a mixture of responsibility, a mixture of personal responsibility and civic duty, if you like, to get others to vote, but I don’t think that really answers the whole problem. If we want to see registration rates up overall, we all need to take some responsibility for it. I think there is a role for local groups and local citizens in this. A positive, if you like, that came out of the recent referendum campaign is lots of local democracy groups, just concerned citizens from different parties, are now coming together. A lot of them have expressed an interest in trying to do more public education, getting more excitement around the voting process, so I think there might be a role for local groups to play alongside individuals.
Q131 Mrs Laing: Yes, and indeed this is the one thing that politicians do do. I was once accused at a public meeting of not doing anything to try and help people register, and every MP and local councillor in the room just burst out laughing, because the one thing that we do do is knock on people’s doors. Obviously we want them to vote in a particular way, but number one, we want them to register and to vote, so we do stir up their interest, or at least we do try to.
Just coming back to the balance of resources here, you said that you are very keen on having election day registration, and indeed my colleague has expressed a similar view. Can I just take you in the opposite direction for the sake of examining the issue? If we take into consideration that it would certainly cost more taxpayers’ money for registration to be allowed to be facilitated in the few days before an election, and on election day, one can imagine that if someone turns up at a polling station and is not registered, then there has to be quite a considerable bureaucracy available there to check their National Insurance number or whatever other identifier has been used and so on, which would cost a lot in terms of human resources and, therefore, money. If people have had the chance through a campaign run by the Electoral Commission in the weeks running up to a general election, let us say, which could be many, many weeks in a fixed-term Parliament, surely it is not reasonable to ask the taxpayer to pay a very considerable amount more money to allow people to register on election day who just didn’t bother to do it in the previous weeks?
Katie Ghose: There was a change a few years ago; I think it was from three months to 11 days, so there is precedent already for a step to be taken in that direction. I suppose it depends where you are coming from. If you are coming, as I am, from the idea that we have all got some responsibility as different cogs in the wheel to get as many people registered as possible, then I just think we need to take a sensible look at all the measures. What we are really saying with election day registration is there are some good examples in the US where it has worked and, for the amount of money that has been put in, you have seen a good rise in registration and in voter turnout as well. So we are really saying we would like to see an exploration of that. Obviously there would need to be a cost-benefit analysis, but we are quite encouraged by the evidence we have seen from the US and we think it is worth a further look.
Q132 Mrs Laing: Let me assure you, we are all coming from the direction that we want to see as many people registered and participating in the electoral system as possible. Everybody wants to see that happening but the cost-benefit analysis here is a very serious one and it would be interesting to see. If you have that evidence, will you give it to the Committee, about the relative cost of allowing people to register? Eleven days, as you have said, is quite a long time before an election, but once you get down to, let’s say, a week, with all the publicity around a general election and all the work that the Electoral Commission can do in advance in encouraging people to register, if someone has not bothered to register, how much does it cost to give them that privilege on election day?
Katie Ghose: I can respond further if that is helpful.
Q133 Andrew Griffiths: Of course, the other question to ask is, if that facility is available that you can register on the day, how many people who would have registered earlier simply don’t bother because they can do it at the last minute and so, therefore, wait? That is an interesting question to ask.
Katie Ghose: I think all of that needs to be covered, and there hasn’t been a proper exploration in this country. Chairman, you asked how we get the excitement and the engagement back in. In some places, voting is a festive thing; it is a brilliant thing to do, it is an exciting thing and maybe because we are quite an old democracy, we have lost a bit of that. I just think it is worth looking creatively at all the different options to get as many people interested as possible, and then as many people voting as possible.
Q134 Sheila Gilmore: I just want to say quickly, regarding individual voter registration, and the concerns everybody’s expressed about fewer people voting, in my constituency, the areas where at the moment we don’t have households responding clearly to the forms are very clearly identifiable, and I am sure they will be very much the sort of people we are all worried won’t respond to individual voter registration. So have you any practical suggestions of how we can perhaps make what is already in some sub-areas of constituencies, a very bad situation-you know, two houses out of a tenement of eight registered is not uncommon-a bit better?
Katie Ghose: I think I have mentioned already and you have heard illustrations that obviously we live in a very diverse country, so you get very different practices in different places. I mentioned an example of the very deprived area, the most deprived ward in Wales where it seemed to be just extremely proactive in going to all parts of the area; I have heard anecdotally that sometimes there may be places that EROs would choose not to go to. Very proactive use of the door-to-door canvassing, which the evidence shows can make a difference, having that face-to-face personal engagement, having a highly targeted approach and having well designed forms as well, can be effective. Looking at every aspect of the process and thinking about the people that you are trying to reach really does seem to make a difference.
One of the things we would love to see is much more sharing of the good practice that is out there among the EROs, and people being properly taken to task. We would like consideration to be given to some proper teeth being given to the Electoral Commission. At the moment, they do the advice and guidance in saying who is not performing well and who is, but we need a proper regulatory approach for them or for someone else so that we could get proper consistent quality across the board. I think that would help in some of the areas that you are talking about.
Q135 Sheila Gilmore: Are there any advantages in outreach work? I have mentioned the post offices, but I suppose there are also other places that people go-the local supermarket or whatever-where we could encourage people to fill in the form rather than something that comes through the door, maybe addressed to somebody who may not be there, certainly in the multi-occupied places.
Katie Ghose: Yes, definitely. We would like to see it made much more part and parcel of the formal transactions you have with the state-the passport, the driving licence, but also the informal interactions that you have day to day, be it post offices or supermarkets or street stalls. We need as many initiatives like that as possible, so that it is more part of the day to day and isn’t just left to chance, if you like.
Q136 Chair: Katie, a sort of quiz question. Have you heard of the Electoral Participation Fund?
Katie Ghose: Yes. This is the one that was abolished.
Q137 Chair: I hadn’t. As a Member of Parliament, I have to say I would love to have heard about it when it was in existence, because I would have helped to ensure that it was not under-spent, which it was, and then was abolished last year. Again, for colleagues in my position who did not quite know what it was, it was designed to assist EROs to fulfil their duties and obviously improve voter registration.
Just a last question from me, Katie. Do you think something like that would be helpful in tackling some of the problems we have talked about this morning?
Katie Ghose: Yes. We think the fund should be reinstated, but every penny should be shown as being put to proper and targeted use, and it should be made part and parcel of other measures so that the taxpayers could be confident that it was being used, and particularly was being used to get to the sort of vulnerable groups, if you like, that we know are least likely to get on the register.
Chair: If the Committee refers to this in its final report, perhaps we might suggest that Members of Parliament and indeed other elected representatives are informed of the existence of the fund so that it can be fully used-but I will leave that to my colleagues who are to write the report.
Q138 Andrew Griffiths: Katie, I recognise what you were saying about its being under-publicised and under-used, but surely every ERO in the country knew this fund was available, knew they could apply for it? I don’t know any council official in my authority who, if there is a potential pot of money that they might be able to get their hands on, does not take every opportunity to at least apply for those funds. It just does not seem credible to me that there is a £2.5 million fund available and that EROs would not have been told, "Apply for this if you think it’s valuable." Isn’t one of the conclusions that can be drawn that EROs did not feel they needed to apply for it, were content with the resources that they had available and, at a time when we are looking at saving money, a £2.5 million fund with a £2 million under-spend seems ripe for an area that we could make some savings?
Katie Ghose: I was as shocked and astonished as anyone else that a fund like that wouldn’t have been used, but those questions need to be asked to the local authorities and the EROs, and we have heard from people this morning that there aren’t sufficient resources there. So I don’t have any answers to that, but I do think that, particularly with what we have coming up in terms of a different system, it is quite clear that resources are going to need to be made available. We have heard about very patchy forms, if you like, by EROs and I think strong consideration should be given to reinstating some kind of a fund, but it should be properly managed and scrutinised. I have already mentioned the Electoral Commission role in having teeth to make sure we get consistent service across the board. So it should be made part and parcel of that, not just reinstated and left for a kind of free-for-all.
Q139 Andrew Griffiths: Just one last question. You are not the first person to say it, there is a consistent theme of people who have given evidence to the Committee that they feel that removing the legal obligation is a particularly worrying aspect, and I think virtually everybody who has come before us so far has made the plea to reinstate that. What do you say about-we heard about this earlier on and I am sure you heard the evidence-people that have been fined for a second or a third or a fourth time and still do not register, or those people who say, "Well, what is the point in having a threat of a sanction if the vast majority of local authorities choose not to use it because it is too expensive a process to go through?"
Katie Ghose: I think the sanction is important in helping the Government and others communicate what is happening. One of my worries is about some of the language in the White Paper around registration being completely take it or leave it, and I think one of your colleagues talked about it feeling a bit like a Nectar card. I don’t think registration should be take it or leave it. At a time when all of us are worried that we might see a downturn in the registration, keeping that sanction-and we have heard that it is not widely used-and having that message there, to take a step back and have a think about this, could have some importance. It is not just for the individual, it is also helping the Government communicate this is a proper way.
Q140 Mrs Laing: What would be the effect of changing the burden of duty and responsibility and merely giving local authorities the duty to compile a list of all the people who they consider are eligible to vote and, therefore, that becomes the Electoral Register and then giving the individual the opportunity to challenge that if they have been either left off or put on erroneously? So that instead of people having to take the initiative and register, the local authority would just say, "Oh yes, that person is eligible."
Katie Ghose: I don’t know. It is an interesting question. I don’t know what the effect would be of that.
Mrs Laing: Thank you. Perhaps that is something the Electoral Reform Society might want to look at.
Chair: As Chairman of the Select Committee, it is beyond my powers to recognise what happens in the gallery, and I shouldn’t even refer to it. However, the twitches and the body language through the last exchange invite me to expect a couple of letters from our ERO colleagues to make real some of the suggestions that colleagues have been putting around the table, so we look forward to further information along those lines.
Katie, thank you very much for the evidence you have given and, if I may say, I think that is one of the best evidence sessions we have had. We have had people from the coalface today, real experience; people who have been there, done it and have come up with some extremely pertinent, sensible, constructive and practical ways forward. I think it has been a very good evidence session this morning. Katie, thank you for your contribution to that. Thank you all.