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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1463-iii
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration
Thursday 15 September 2011
John Turner, jocelyn mccarley and Michel Saminaden
Jenny Watson, Peter Wardle and Andrew Scallan
Evidence heard in Public Questions 141 - 218
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 15 September 2011
Mr Graham Allen (Chair)
Mrs Eleanor Laing
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: John Turner, Chief Executive, Association of Electoral Administrators, Jocelyn McCarley, Assistant Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland and Michel Saminaden, Chief Executive, Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council, joint lead on IER for SOLACE, gave evidence.
Q141 Chair: It is very good to see you. Thanks for joining us today. So Michel, Jocelyn and John, welcome to the Committee. It is very good of you to spare your extremely valuable time to see us. You will know that we are having a look at individual voter registration and we would like, if you will allow us, to pick your brains on where we are and where we perhaps ought to be. Would it be helpful to kick off with a little opening statement or do you want to jump straight into questions?
John Turner: Happy to leave it to you, Mr Chairman.
Chair: Everyone happy? Okay. All right, Simon, maybe I can ask you to start us off.
Q142 Simon Hart: Thank you. I have to go for a short while at about 10.30 am, so if I ask a question and then leave don’t be offended. There is nothing in it.
I missed our evidence session on Tuesday but we were talking about this subject last week, and it seems to us that the notion of individual registration is being sold to us on the fact that it is a fairer system than the current one. I just wondered what your views were on which parts of society you think benefit or gain from these proposals. Are there people who are currently on the register who you think will find it more difficult to be on the register in the future under the new rules? As a sort of supplementary to that, do you think-and you may not want to answer the question precisely-that will have an effect on some local politics in a party political sense? So it is, really, who are the winners and losers from this particular proposal?
Michel Saminaden: Shall I make a start? As a Returning Officer, an Electoral Registration Officer, I think we are very supportive of individual registration but there is a real fear that some parts of society, some of the electorates-especially young people who normally have the form filled in for them by a head of household-probably won’t bother, probably will fall off. So we think definitely young people. We think perhaps black and minority ethnic communities will probably drop off the list as well. So we think there is a potential, although it is the right way forward because we have an anachronistic system that goes back years. It is the right way forward, but I think it needs to be linked to better publicity, and so on, to get people to register. So we have particular concerns about young people and some parts of the community.
Simon Hart: Just on that, we don’t know what the publicity, the marketing and the communications will be yet but you are just flagging up a concern that, unless it is really thorough and sustained, there could be sections of society who could be disadvantaged as a consequence?
Michel Saminaden: Absolutely. Yes, and they may be anyway, but there needs to be a very deep and embedded communication with people to tell them the benefits of registering because what we normally get is, "Why bother?"
Q143 Simon Hart: Should that be the responsibility of central government, or is that a local authority challenge?
Michel Saminaden: I think that it is all of us. I think it is the Electoral Commission, central government, political parties, local authorities-all of us together have to. It is a challenge for all of us. I don’t think a single party alone could manage it.
Chair: Jocelyn or John, do you want to follow up on that?
John Turner: Yes. It seems to us that in the short term there is going to be an impact, because, you are right, there will be people who will engage and there will be people who will not engage. That is largely because of the nature of the current system where, traditionally, one individual in each household has taken the responsibility and other people who are within that household have probably not even seen the form. It is likely, therefore, it seems to me, that we will get to a situation where some of those people will not get fully engaged in the new process.
There is also the question of the voluntary nature of the new system, where the Government have said that there is no intention to make this compulsory. Indeed, they have hinted in the White Paper that there could be the opportunity for people to opt out, and given the almost anecdotal evidence that some people do not like registering, for a variety of reasons, I think there is a fair chance that advantage will be taken of that opt-out.
If you think around some of the uses of the register that might dissuade people from registering and the fact that you are going to be able to say, by ticking a box, "I do not wish to be canvassed. I do not wish to register", there seems to me a sort of pervasive logic that gets us to a position where people will drop off the register, for reasons that have very little to do with voting, politics or even engagement with the democratic system. They would be persuaded for other reasons, such as jury service, not wanting to receive unsolicited mail, wishing to remain anonymous-for all sorts of security and perhaps other reasons. That has a knock-on effect that potentially we will not see until we have gone through two iterations of the registration process, the first important one being after the next general election.
Q144 Simon Hart: Thinking of the Northern Ireland experience, I just wonder how confident you are. The data transfer, the data management, from where we are now to where we will be after registration, is a mammoth technical challenge. Thinking of Returning Officers in particular, are you confident that that can be done with the absolute minimum of risk? I am just thinking of general data handling issues; are we sufficiently geared up to do that?
John Turner: We haven’t seen the detail of how that will be handled, but whenever new challenges have been thrown at both the electoral profession and the suppliers, the IT suppliers who support them, generally it has worked. My concern would not be so much about data transfer into a new system; it will be more about how the public respond to the fact that they are faced with a new challenge. Therefore, I think my concern would be a little bit more about ensuring that the sorts of ways in which you can interact with government electronically-or indeed, with any other agency-are part of this process.
If we think that one of the greatest under-represented groups in age terms are the 18 to 25s and if you look at how the 18 to 25s conduct their general business, it is normally with a phone or a BlackBerry or something else. So we have to ensure that those sort of IT channels are available to the people we are trying to relate to, particularly given the success there has been in terms of the traditional and current arrangements by people using internet, telephone, and so on, to register.
Michel Saminaden: If I can say something about the system itself, which links into what you just asked. Reading through the White Paper, it strikes me that the whole system is more lax now than before. At the moment, you receive a form from the Electoral Registration Office. It is an important form and it tells you that you have to fill it in. Then you receive a reminder and it tells you that you could be subject to a fine if you don’t. That has an impact on people. It appears to me that this system that is going to be brought in is much more lax, much more, "Well, you can do it if you like but you don’t really have to. We are not saying you have to anymore". Even to the extent where if you don’t want to supply the National Insurance number, "Well, all right, we will look for something else from you". It doesn’t have the power that the current system has and I have to say I think that is a huge mistake.
In terms of coping technically, we will; we always do and we will. I am sure that we will come across data protection problems and we will have to deal with those as they come along.
Q145 Mrs Laing: When we debated individual electoral registration at length, over many, many years, in the House of Commons, successive ministers-I was going to say of both parties; I suppose I really mean of all parties-said that it was really important that, before we make changes in England, Wales and Scotland we learn the lessons of Northern Ireland. This was a comforting consideration, especially for Members who were concerned about the comprehensiveness of the register being lost and the importance of keeping to the accuracy of the register. We have seen the statistics for Northern Ireland. Am I right in saying that, when the new system was introduced, the number of electors fell fairly significantly but then it rose again and settled down?
Jocelyn McCarley: That is right.
Mrs Laing: Thank you for confirming that. What lessons-
Chair: Is Mrs Laing’s view accurate?
Jocelyn McCarley: It is right, to an extent. At the moment, the register in Northern Ireland is at the highest it has ever been since the year 2000. In 2002, yes, we did have a very dramatic fall in the numbers registered-it was about 10% of the register-but when we brought the new legislation in, to introduce individual registration, we also lost the carry forward. That was when people were asked and canvassed to fill in a registration form and if they did not respond they were carried forward on the register for another year.
There was a report done by the Electoral Commission that attributed a very large amount of that fall-off to the fact that we no longer had a carry forward. If you carry it forward to later years, in the year 2005 we retrospectively reintroduced the carry forward in Northern Ireland. These were people who had not responded to the 2004 canvass. There were over 70,000 people reinstated. In December 2005 the people who did not respond to the canvass were over 90,000. If you compare that to the 10% fall in Northern Ireland, which was 120,000, you will see that it actually accounts for a huge amount of the people. So you have to take the drop in the register in Northern Ireland in context; we also lost the carry forward, which is not going to happen here.
Q146 Mrs Laing: That is indeed one of the lessons that we have learnt about the way in which it was done-an important lesson. Do you think that the system will be more smoothly introduced in England, Wales, Scotland, and so on, because of the lessons that have been learned?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes. As I say, in Northern Ireland we did retrospectively reintroduce the people. We had elections in 2005 and the political parties were obviously not very happy with the fall-off in the register, because what happened after we introduced individual registration was that every year, following the canvass, the register fell by about 2%. People did not respond and it fell off. Over the year, through rolling registration, we were able to make up that decline in some way, but the overall trend in the register in Northern Ireland was downwards. That continued until we abolished the canvass in 2006, the annual canvass. The reason for that was partially because of this downward decline in the register, but also people got fed up filling in the identifiers, year after year after year.
If you look at the statistics for Northern Ireland, since that point the register has climbed and climbed and climbed until, like I said, it is at its highest ever. If you take the figure that we have now back to 2000, it would be something like 96% comprehensive. Now it is not because the number of people eligible has increased in Northern Ireland by about 1% every year so it is still only sitting in the late 80s, but if you put it in comparison we have done quite well in building the register again.
If I could just answer your question about the carry forward, when we carried forward about 70,000-odd electors, and then about 95,000, the Electoral Commission did do an update report on what happened to those people. There was about half of them re-registered the following year so they were there, but the other half we don’t know. So the problem with carry forward is there are a lot of people there that may not be there at all, and yet they are still carried forward on the register. There are duplicates, so there are problems with that too.
Q147 Mrs Laing: Is it also possible that part of the reduction in numbers is due to the fact that people who should not have been on the register were removed?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Michel Saminaden: If I can just mention one thing about carry forward, one small piece that is probably worth saying. It is about the carry forward of people who have a postal vote. So everyone has to be carried forward but your postal vote is not going to be carried forward. I think that is something that really needs to be looked into. It seems-
Q148 Mrs Laing: Do you have a recommendation about that?
Michel Saminaden: Yes. If we are carrying it forward, it should be carried forward. It seems a bit of vindictiveness entered into it for some reason that none of us can really fathom.
Q149 Mrs Laing: In previous evidence sessions this issue has arisen and we might well have hit on something quite important here. Can I ask this question to everybody: do you consider that the postal vote-and presumably, you also mean proxy vote then-should be carried forward?
Michel Saminaden: If you are carried forward, you should be carried forward as you are on the current register.
Mrs Laing: Is that what the other members of the panel think?
John Turner: My understanding of the rationale behind that policy is that those people being carried forward will not have given-because they have not had any contact with the Electoral Registration Officer-the identifiers that would be necessary to secure the integrity of the absent voting process. So carrying them forward has this danger of allowing a security or an integrity problem into the new system, which will be hybrid for the next election anyway. So generally speaking, on security and integrity grounds, I would be concerned about carrying forward postal votes, in particular where you do not have a means of checking them back as being authenticated against the individual.
Q150 Sheila Gilmore: Just quickly on that particular point, changes were made to the way the postal votes were issued fairly recently and people have to supply their date of birth and a signature. To that extent, people who have existing postal votes are already giving more information about themselves than people who just fill out the registration form or have it filled out for them. So you could argue-or maybe you don’t agree-that postal voters already do give a-
Michel Saminaden: We do. That is exactly what we argue. That is exactly right.
John Turner: The problem is that for some of those people who we will be carrying forward in, let’s say, 2013-2014, it could be four years ago when they gave those identifying details and they have not been verified since because it is only a five-year-
Chair: Presumably they were accurate at the time, John.
John Turner: Yes, one will presume that. The problem is, as Jocelyn said, people do move, people do change.
Q151 Chair: That is not the purpose of the identifiers. It is administratively convenient to track people who have deceased, but that is not the purpose of the identifiers?
John Turner: No, not for postal votes, but the people who are coming into the individual registration system and will be giving whatever identifiers are eventually agreed-date of birth, National Insurance number, and so on-will be operating under a different and more secure system than postal voters where there is the least possible check on fraudulent activity.
Q152 Sheila Gilmore: When people’s postal vote comes in, it is verified against their signature and that has made the whole postal voting counting thing a bit longer than it used to be. I know the verification process is administratively longer than it used to be, but that was the purpose, to verify the signature. If the information was wrong in the first place that is a different issue, but there is still a safeguard to the system because a postal vote is verified in a way that somebody, frankly, turning up at a polling station isn’t.
John Turner: All we are saying is, it is just logic that if you are going to carry someone forward with no verification of anything at all into the system, which is what we are going to be doing for many people, then why would you not carry forward those who have already given you some verification for their postal vote? All I was saying is that we cannot see any logic in that.
Q153 Mr Turner: For how long can they, without you ever having seen them and you not knowing anything about them?
Michel Saminaden: For five years.
Mr Turner: Five years?
Michel Saminaden: For five years. In fact, at the moment, there has been no verification at all. It is just beginning now because this system has only been in for five years, so it is a five-year process and we are all going to have to start that verification process now.
Q154 Mr Turner: So once people have done five years, they have to resubmit?
Michel Saminaden: Yes, they have to resubmit their signatures and dates of birth to us, but the point is that those who are not on postal votes have done nothing and they are being carried forward. There is no verification of anybody-
Mr Turner: But only for five years?
Michel Saminaden: No, no, I mean, they are people who have registered the year before with us, in the old-fashioned way without any verification, and they are being carried forward.
Mr Turner: They are being carried forward until when?
Michel Saminaden: For one year, I understand.
Mr Turner: For one year?
Michel Saminaden: For one year under the proposals.
Mr Turner: So are we talking about the proxies, and so on-for one year is what you suggest?
Michel Saminaden: For one year, yes.
Mr Turner: Just one year?
Michel Saminaden: Just the same as everybody else.
Mr Turner: I see.
Michel Saminaden: Why differentiate them from everybody else? That is the only point, yes.
Chair: Eleanor, back to you; very helpful.
Q155 Mrs Laing: So we have a bit of a difference of opinion here. This is quite helpful, thank you. When you carry out the canvass, do you have enough information to make a judgement as to the approximate percentage of people who wilfully do not register because they intend not to register, and a corresponding percentage of people who just don’t bother or forget?
Michel Saminaden: It is very difficult. In Welwyn Hatfield, we have a university of 20,000 students, so we have a huge number who don’t register. Yes, it is speculative, it is really either because they are registering elsewhere or because they are students they can’t be bothered. I am not really sure. We do send out individual forms to all of them. So we send out maybe 12,000 forms and get back 30.
Q156 Mrs Laing: You send out individual forms now?
Michel Saminaden: We do now.
Mrs Laing: To every student?
Michel Saminaden: Because students are in their individual halls, their individual rooms, you see, so in that way they do. Yes, they get an individual form.
Q157 Mrs Laing: So, in order to do this, instead of just like under the old system, when the person who administered the student hall of residence just filled in all the students’-
Michel Saminaden: Yes. No, that does not happen.
Mrs Laing: You are already not doing that?
Michel Saminaden: Definitely not. No, we have not been doing that for a few years.
Mrs Laing: Oh, right.
Michel Saminaden: We thought we would get a better result, but it was the same; no better, no worse.
Q158 Mrs Laing: In order to do this, are you provided with information by the university?
Michel Saminaden: Yes, we are. Yes.
Mrs Laing: So that is a form of data-sharing that is already working?
Michel Saminaden: Yes. We liaise very closely with them, yes.
Mrs Laing: All right, and similarly-
John Turner: Well, the real problem is those who refuse to play are not likely to tell you they are refusing to play, because there is the threat of eventual prosecution. They will simply disappear under the radar, so it is very difficult to get a handle on that. I think the truth of the matter is that if you had infinite resources, and you were prepared to go to the nth degree, you could probably get an answer as to how many people you have not engaged with or at least how many properties you have not engaged with, because you don’t really know how many people are in that property. That is a very expensive proposition.
When I was the Electoral Registration Officer at Norwich, I had a very supportive local authority who were prepared to put money in. They paid for three wards a year to be completely blitzed and I employed six visiting inspectors. I can tell you it cost an awful lot of money to add about 5% of people to the register.
Q159 Mrs Laing: Would it be right to say that most of those people who were thus added could have been added if they had bothered to fill in the form?
John Turner: Yes, absolutely. Literally it was the horse and the water approach to life. In the end, I think my visiting inspectors became so tiresome that it was easier to fill the form in than to face another knock on the door two days later. So it is a war of attrition, but whether the money is being well spent doing that-in even harder times, I doubt there would be sufficient resource to do that.
Q160 Mrs Laing: That is a very good point. Is there a lesson on that from Northern Ireland?
Jocelyn McCarley: Northern Ireland of course was slightly different, because we have moved to data-sharing and we don’t do an annual count, but what I would say is that, for the past two elections, the past two years-2010 with a parliamentary election and this year, when we had the combined elections-there was about 18,000 people in both groups added to the register coming up to the election. Obviously, we are not getting to those people and they have not bothered to fill in a form and so all the data-sharing arrangements are not getting to those people, or else they are just not reacting to us when we do.
Q161 Mrs Laing: You discovered that. Do you have a more accurate idea of the people who are missing from the register because of data-sharing?
Jocelyn McCarley: I did do an analysis of who those 18,000 were and there was a disproportionate amount in the young age groups, the younger people. That did surprise me because in Northern Ireland our Area Electoral Officers, as they are called, visit every school in Northern Ireland with pupils in the 16 to 17 year age range. We also contact further education colleges, who provide us with their pupil information and either visit the colleges.
Colleges are a bit more difficult because the pupils are on day release. They are not there that day or whatever, so it is more contact by letter. We also use information from the Department of Work and Pensions. They give us quarterly outputs on people who have attained the age of 16, and we go through our register and check whether we have them on the register and then we write to them. I would have to say that we do keep careful statistics on what comes back, and it is probably about a 40% return rate, so there are still those people who don’t respond.
Mrs Laing: 40%?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes.
Q162 Mrs Laing: It is particularly interesting for us to look at this data-sharing. So am I right in thinking what happens is you get information from DWP, from the Department of Education and from schools and colleges, so you know where people who are about to be 18 are?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes, that is right.
Mrs Laing: You write to those people individually, giving them the opportunity to register to vote and you write to them more than once and you get a 40% return?
Jocelyn McCarley: No, we only write once.
Mrs Laing: You write once, so then you might follow it up after that?
Jocelyn McCarley: We tend not to because of the volume of work and the resources. That is very time-consuming because we have to go back and check if they have then responded and know which ones need writing back to.
Mrs Laing: Right, but each of these people gets individually addressed to them a letter saying-
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes and a registration form.
Mrs Laing: -"You can vote. You just have to send us back this form" and only 40% do it?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes.
Q163 Mrs Laing: That is interesting, but it is a personal choice.
Can I follow up with more on data-sharing-the issue of people still being on the register when in fact they have died? Is there an obligation upon the Registrar of Deaths to tell the Electoral Registration Officer when somebody has died?
John Turner: Yes, there is. The problem is it is imperfect, in the sense that many of the details come from where the person died rather than the place in which they reside and, therefore, whether they are on the register. So it is not a perfect system, but that obligation exists.
Mrs Laing: So you mean a death is registered in the place where a person has died?
John Turner: That is the general rule, yes.
Mrs Laing: Rather than the place where-
John Turner: They were living.
Mrs Laing: Oh that is interesting, I just realised all my family have died in the place where they lived, so you have to-
John Turner: We have their vote. [Laughter.]
Mrs Laing: I would like to make the point that my family are not responsible-the ones who are no longer on this earth, sadly. This is an issue personally that I had not thought about. You have partly answered the question. I did wonder why this goes wrong because on Tuesday an Electoral Registration Officer told us of hundreds of people who were discovered to still be on the register who had been dead for 10, 20 years, and more, and who appeared to be 111 years old. Isn’t that what they told us?
Sheila Gilmore: I think, to be accurate, that was DWP information. They did say those people were not on the register but they thought there was something odd. Well not odd, but the DWP data was cumulative, and they weren’t paying them benefits either, I don’t think.
Chair: Let’s address any further questions to the witnesses.
Q164 Mrs Laing: It was. My colleague is right to correct me but, one way or another, there is a discrepancy which made me think, "Why is there not a proper system that, when somebody dies, the information is sent to where it ought to be sent? Would it be possible, without costing too much money, to devise a system whereby when a death is registered then the Electoral Registration Officer for the area in which the person lived should be informed?
John Turner: It would seem entirely sensible, but whether it is possible from the Registrar General’s systems, I don’t know.
Michel Saminaden: I am sure it is possible, and I think it works very well. We use all sorts of systems to identify people who have passed on. Usually with the annual canvass and at election time we get lots of information back, so our register is constantly updated. I would say it is fairly up-to-date actually. I would be very surprised if we had many dead people on our register.
Jocelyn McCarley: I think in Northern Ireland, the system is slightly different because Northern Ireland is a small province and it is a central system. We get weekly lists from the General Registrar’s office on deaths. We also get a monthly list from the Coroner’s office. We feed that into the system so everybody has access to it, so the deaths are removed at that time. We have access to the whole of Northern Ireland, so if I looked in at Belfast I could see someone is registered in Londonderry. So that isn’t a problem really in Northern Ireland.
Mrs Laing: Perhaps that is another lesson we can learn from Northern Ireland. Thank you.
Q165 Chair: Is it true that you can tick a box on the proposed registration to say, "Please don’t remind me anymore about my right to vote-go away"?
Michel Saminaden: Not so much tick a box but I think you will be able to tell us, in one way or another, yes, "Not to bother knocking at my door, please".
John Turner: My understanding is that it will be precisely that. There will be a way of advising Electoral Registration Officers, probably by ticking a box on a form, that, "I do not wish to be approached again" in respect of that particular year’s registration.
Michel Saminaden: It is just for one year. You cannot say you don’t want to be approached ever again, so it is an annual thing you would have to do.
Q166 Tristram Hunt: As I understand it, the Government plans to repeal sections of the Political Parties and Elections Act to allow for an accelerated timetable for voter registration. Is that timetable achievable and what are the potential civic consequences of that timetable-i.e. are we rushing it when we could get more people on the electoral register if the initial timetable was followed?
Michel Saminaden: If the regulations come out as proposed, then I think we would be rushing it, especially at the parliamentary election. There is enough to do during a parliamentary election, and I think there was a proposal to bring in another date by which people can register and, yes, I think that is pushing this one a bit too far.
John Turner: I would say that when the Government first announced their intention to change the legislation, as you suggested, then we would have felt that there was enough time. I am concerned now that we have moved on a year from that position, and our particular concern is that the high principle of whether you have individual registration is a really a political and policy matter. The detail of how you do it, though, is critical to its working properly.
Our concern-and I think we have stated it in the evidence to you-is that as every month passes, it is going to get extremely difficult to ensure that the system is totally workable and that the necessary IT systems that will support that system are in place. Perhaps if we get past spring of next year and we still have not seen the regulations, I think I would be saying, "Well, you need a bit more time to do this properly". I don’t think we can afford, in effect, a rushed project that plays loose and fast with the democratic system.
Q167 Tristram Hunt: I think that is a growing worry. We have heard about the Northern Ireland experience of initially a 10% drop in terms of registration. We heard from Democratic Audit last week. Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg, I think, talked of a profound impact on voter registration levels from this proposed legislation and he was estimating a 20% fall in those on the electoral roll. Yesterday, at a meeting of Members of Parliament, Jenny Watson from the Electoral Commission suggested that the logic of the voter registration system, as currently laid out, might lead to a 30% fall-i.e. from 90% to 60% of those registered to vote. I am not asking you to put a precise percentage on it, but if you could explore, in terms of the number of our citizens registered to vote, the consequences of the legislation as it currently stands, I would be interested to hear that.
Michel Saminaden: A lot depends on your constituency, where you are located. I can only speak for my own. It is very difficult to say, but we are estimating something like about a 10% drop in the first year. The fact that there is the carry forward, of course the first year for us is the year after the next parliamentary election. That is the one we are gearing up towards and we are looking at maybe 10%. We think that is going to be mainly in the younger people.
Q168 Tristram Hunt: In the Northern Ireland case, it was quite clear about young people, ethnic minority groups and disadvantaged groups. That is where people fell off the register, is that right?
Jocelyn McCarley: Young people, yes. I think there was always a problem getting people registered in the socially deprived areas so that just continued, but young people, yes, they did fall off. When there was a household form and someone was able to fill it in and put the children on the form, as opposed to the young people having to fill in the form themselves, that was a problem.
Q169 Tristram Hunt: The Electoral Commission says, "Those living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and encountered specific problems with the new registration process", so it is class as well as youth?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes, effectively.
John Turner: I think it is fair to say that I would agree with the previous comment about the nature of the constituency but, in any event, you can generally think that when you do a canvass, you will get an immediate response from people who are happy to fill in forms, and so on, and engage. That response will depend on the type of constituency and it could be anything from 60/40 up to 90/10, meaning that the effort that you then have to put in is on the people who have not responded. If you use that as an indicator, and you take a broad brush average, I would think in these sorts of leafy shire areas you could be talking a drop of 10% or 15%. In inner city areas, I think that what Jenny Watson said is probably somewhere near the mark and there is going to be lots of things in the middle of that.
At the risk of provoking any of you, can I also make a point about the December 2015 register? If you have that sort of drop and your friends at the Boundary Commission then have to do the next boundary review on the next system, it is going to make another major difference to the way in which parliamentary boundaries are drawn, given that the 2015 register, with these potential drops, will be that which is used to settle the new constituency boundaries for 2020.
Q170 Tristram Hunt: Can I pursue that very point? Forgive my ignorance. We have a carry over from 2013/2014 to the May 2015 election, but there is no carry over for the electoral register for December 2015, is that right?
John Turner: That is the proposition, as I understand it. So if you take the consequence of the natural drop, together with this peeling away of the carry forwards that have come through this transitional programme, then you are looking at a much smaller register in December 2015, unless a considerable effort is put into getting back the people who you have lost as a result of these two steps.
Q171 Tristram Hunt: When they were elected in May last year, the Government said there was going to be a considerable effort for the December register for the new boundaries and very little happened. In terms of overstretched councils and budgets and all the rest of it, it is going to be very difficult to put the effort in to raise those registration levels probably?
Michel Saminaden: There is traditionally a drop away in interest after a parliamentary election; we see that anyway. So we are contemplating that the 2015 register will be much lower.
Q172 Tristram Hunt: Would your suggestion be then to have the carry over for the December 2015 registration?
John Turner: The saving grace may be the point that has just been made, in the sense that I would anticipate, as was the case for 2010, that there will be a significant interest by people who are not on the register in the run up to the 2015 general election, and they will make efforts to get on. So the register should be at its highest point in the five-year cycle at that point. What worries me is we don’t know what the effect of the introduction of individual registration will have achieved and, at this stage, we certainly cannot anticipate what the carry forward drop out will be. So if that effort in getting the register to its highest possible level in 2015 is not sustained by some other means, the drop off by December 2015 could be a very large one indeed.
Q173 Tristram Hunt: Given the botched, ridiculous and absurd nature of the Government’s legislation when it comes to boundary reviews-i.e. it is all about numbers rather than identity, locality and a sense of place-some of us argued for all these things during the passage of the Bill; poor Andrew Turner, you know, "Save the Isle of Wight". The drop in numbers will be even more marked for how constituencies are then carved up, and it will all be about the numbers.
John Turner: That part of the legislation has not changed, yes.
Q174 Tristram Hunt: Yes, as we contemplate this, could I finally touch on this issue of compulsion? There is a very interesting example in the Vale of Clwyd. One of our colleagues increased voter registration, quite markedly, by having large red letters from Electoral Registration Officers talking about potential fines and passing matters on to the council legal department and all the other potential prospects of prosecution, which rarely ever go through, but increased voter registration quite profoundly. If, as the Government wants, voting becomes a personal choice, like signing up for your Nectar card or whatever, do you think in a sense that that will have a cultural effect on how people regard voting, how people regard their duties in terms of the ballot box?
Michel Saminaden: Definitely. It is one of the two biggest areas that we have concerns over; exactly that. You could not put it better. It is a cultural effect, because at the moment, culturally, people know they have to register. As I said earlier, it is an important letter that you get but if it becomes just another letter, which you can ignore if you want to ignore, many people may. I think there is a potential real impact on the numbers, and the attitude towards electoral registration and, consequently, voting; so yes, it is a big thing.
Another small thing is the household enquiry form. It needs some clarity, really, because that is compulsory. So each year at the end of the canvass-as it is now called, a HEF-it is compulsory to send that back, but will the head of the household have to include those people who have already told us the year before that they don’t want to be pestered by us anymore? I am not sure about that really. I think they would have to because I think it is their duty to, but there may be some comeback for people who have already told us they don’t want to be included. There is bit of a dichotomy there that needs to be sorted as well.
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes, I agree wholeheartedly with that. It seems wrong. We are trying to enforce that this is very important, this is the electoral register, this is the basis of democracy and then we are saying, "But don’t worry if you don’t want to fill that in"; it doesn’t seem right at all. As I mentioned earlier, we will write to people, and when we write to people we say, "Enclosed is an electoral registration form, "The benefits of being registered are that you can vote". We also have an electoral identity card in Northern Ireland that we would offer, but there is nothing else to encourage people to register and you are more or less saying, "Well, it really doesn’t matter". It seems totally wrong to me as well. Yes.
John Turner: I would agree with my two colleagues. More particularly, I do think there are some deterrent effects as well. There is one that I have raised with Cabinet Office officials that still concerns me, because I am not sure it has been tackled. This is the question of juries. I know it is not a matter for your Committee, but it does strike me that if you pick up the cultural issue and you give people the option of not being on the electoral register, which is used in England, and I assume in Wales, for summoning juries, you are going to end up with a situation where people will soon work out that, "I’m not going to bother to respond now. If I fancy voting in May, I will register just before the election".
Of course, that will not be on the register used for summoning juries. If you don’t fancy sitting for weeks on end at a very interesting fraud trial, is this not an effective way to avoid that civic responsibility, while at the same time having an adverse effect on the democratic process in terms of the percentage registered on the electoral register? So I think that is a side matter that is perhaps outside the scope of what you are considering, but is an important matter to me because I think people will soon work this one out for themselves.
Michel Saminaden: Another small side matter is that we are being told that under section 9A of the Representation of the People Act 1983, we will, as the Electoral Registration Office, still have to send a reminder, still have to send a canvasser to knock on the door twice. I think that just makes the canvasser’s job-which is already very difficult-a lot more difficult if they can’t say, "Well, it is your duty to do this". It will be just, "Go away, we’re not bothering". I think it just makes it more difficult.
Q175 Chair: Thank you. John. Let me just get this clear. As Chief Executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, your view is that the fall in prosperous areas in the level of registration will be, according to your estimate-and obviously I am not going to hold you directly to a precise number-about 10% to 15%. Your estimate for a poorer inner city or, in my case, for example, an outer city set of estates, you would not disagree with that being-around 30%, it will be, I suppose? Are we about in the right area?
John Turner: You only have to look at canvass returns and the percentage of estimated eligibility now in different constituencies, as reported annually by the ONS. If you peel that back, the difficulty in canvassing these sort of areas you have alluded to as opposed a leafy shire, then the figures will stack up for themselves. I certainly could not be held to say, "It will be X% here and Y% there", but it seems to me that the lessons of the last 30 years are that it is easier to canvass in some places than in others, therefore the response rates are higher in some places than others. There is a resource implication as well. We know that local government is not immune from the current financial situation, and I think it will be difficult for them to go the extra step that would otherwise achieve more parity.
Chair: But you are now at this point, well before it happens, hoisting some very strong warning flags for our democratic process. I had not quite comprehended the depth of the possible change that might be on the way, which is why I asked the question.
In terms of resources, I think Andrew may have a couple of questions.
Q176 Andrew Griffiths: What is the cost for councils of moving from household to individual registration and will the money be in place?
John Turner: We understand that the cost of transition and implementation will be met by central government. So long as that is honoured, there should not be a problem. The real issue I have is that the cost hasn’t yet reached the final detail, because it cannot without the regulations I was talking about, and unless we have the detailed system how can we possibly cost it?
There are certain assumptions made in the impact assessment that the Cabinet Office did that have not yet been tested, so my caveat on that first comment is that central government still has some work to do here to ensure that the costings are robust-and more particularly that, once that is settled, the money provided for the transition and implementation finds its way into electoral services and not just into local authority coffers. There is a record in history of money being provided for these specific services that sometimes does not get to the coalface. If that were to happen in this situation then there would be problems for local authorities, given the problems they currently face in this financial climate.
Michel Saminaden: This is an important area that I need to say something about, because local government is being crucified at the moment in terms of its resources. We are all having huge cuts, we are scraping all the barrels dry, and it was good to hear that the Government have said that they will be funding this transition. They will put in something like £100 million.
I have been asked by my fellow Electoral Registration Officers-those who are not chief executives, those who can’t direct where these resources go-that there is some sort of direction given on these funds, that they are used for the purpose for which they are given to local authorities. Not every Returning Officer or Electoral Registration Officer is a chief executive, and so they are fighting for these funds as they are for everything else. So there is that plea.
In terms of ongoing, there will be additional resource, there is no doubt, because we will be talking with many tens of thousands more electors rather than the individuals. I think that is not the big problem. The real big problem is the actual transition where there is a lot of extra work, and obviously lots of extra postage-all sorts of new systems to be brought in. So the plea is really to do some sort of ring-fencing; I know that word is not liked by anybody, but some sort of direction that the funds should be used for those purposes.
Chair: Jocelyn, do you have a comment?
Jocelyn McCarley: In Northern Ireland, we certainly had sufficient resources to bring in individual registration. I think the problem was, as electoral administrators, we probably underestimated the amount of resources we would need in terms of staff. The volume of forms coming into the office was a bit of shock; it all needed the data input. It was more from that point of view, but money was there when individual registration was introduced. I have to say that, like yourselves, we were very much restrained.
Mrs Laing asked me earlier whether we followed up letters. No, because we don’t have the resources to keep doing that. We are trying to cover schools; we are trying to do all the things we have to do. So yes, we are tied a bit now to keep following up on things.
Q177 Mr Turner: What are the rules for the disposal of personal identifiers and what is happening? Presumably, you receive personal identifiers. What happens then?
Jocelyn McCarley: We hold them because in the legislation if someone then applies for a postal vote we have to check those identifiers against the identifiers given on the absent vote form, so the legislation is slightly different in GB. But we have to compare with the identifiers given on the registration form and, as we don’t really know who is going to apply for a postal vote, we retain them all. We use them extensively to check against duplicates on the register and things like that as well.
Mr Turner: So you retain them indefinitely?
Jocelyn McCarley: We do.
Mr Turner: For colleagues?
Michel Saminaden: I think the proposal is that the National Insurance number will be destroyed after six months, but the date of birth will be retained.
John Turner: Yes, that is right.
Q178 Mr Turner: Crudely, are you capable of doing that? Are councils capable of destroying things that they are meant to destroy?
Michel Saminaden: We are capable, certainly, yes.
Mr Turner: But does it happen?
Michel Saminaden: It does if we are told to, yes, absolutely. I don’t see why-it defies a bit of logic, really, as to why we should, but if we are told to, we will. We will destroy them.
Mr Turner: I am not suggesting you are not doing it intentionally, but things go wrong.
Michel Saminaden: Yes, absolutely, things can go wrong but, in general terms, if we have a data file and we are told to destroy it then we can destroy and we will destroy it. The industry will do it for us.
Mr Turner: Yes. The question was is it going to happen?
Jocelyn McCarley: Yes.
Michel Saminaden: It will happen. Definitely, if it is the law, we will abide by the law.
Q179 Mr Turner: I must say I have a relationship with council and the PCT, which are not necessarily getting it all right. Surely you have the same concerns?
Michel Saminaden: Not over this one, no. No, absolutely not. This will be an easy thing to do. I am not saying we would want to do it, but if we are told to do it it will be an easy thing to do. They will be kept in a separate file and that file will be destroyed.
Q180 Mr Turner: Okay. Finally, should the Electoral Commission be given powers to deal with Electoral Registration Officers who fail to discharge their duties and, more to the point, how many of them are there?
Michel Saminaden: How many Electoral Registration Officers?
Mr Turner: Yes, who are not doing their job?
Michel Saminaden: None, I would say. As an Electoral Registration Officer, I think the question of the Electoral Commission having power over Electoral Registration Officers is a difficult one because Electoral Registration Officers are council officers. Returning Officers are not; Electoral Registration Officers are. They are accountable to the council. There is a leader of council and the Cabinet, and so on, so I think that is where any disciplinary issues should happen if that were the case.
How many are not doing their job properly? There are some I am sure, but very few. Mostly it works very well, most elections work very well. I would say nothing is perfect but I think we have a very good system, with good officers.
John Turner: Yes, I share that view. The Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers are statutory officeholders under statute and they have duties to perform. There are steps in the legislation that can be taken if they do not, and the Commission have the parallel track of being able to report on performance anyway, which they have recently done on Electoral Registration Officers. I think it then finds its way through the sausage machine.
Mr Turner: Thank you very much.
Q181 Chair: Thank you, Andrew. We are coming to the end now, but John, in particular, I want to just ask whether you have any views on this ongoing consultation on other electoral administration issues. You have the floor, so if you want to take the opportunity to mention those, now is a good time. Then I will ask your colleagues if they have any final remarks.
John Turner: The ones that were previously published to do with timetable, polling district and polling place reviews, and this business of joint candidates being able to use emblems, we are fully supportive of all those. They are things that need to be corrected, because I am sure they have just crept through the thing. More latterly, the things to do with the postal vote application deadline are not as straightforward as simply changing the date; you can just create another period of pressure. We are looking at those and we will respond in due course on that point. We certainly support the thing about bringing forward the agent appointments.
In terms of the matters announced in the ministerial statement yesterday, we would support the suggestion that the automatic postponement of parish and community council should go. It seems that it is appropriate and we have already demonstrated here that it can be handled quite easily, so I don’t think that postponement of three weeks is at all helpful. The 100% checking of PVIs; we have talked about PVIs. Most Returning Officers now do that anyway. It is the guidance that the Electoral Commission gives and is generally supported and there does need to be a get out of jail card there, because they can-
Chair: Or a go to bed card, in the case of parliamentary diehards.
John Turner: With Mrs Laing here, I wouldn’t dare get into the arguments about what time you finish and start. The emergency proxy voting facility, once again, seems perfectly sensible and will help people who are called away at short notice.
Q182 Chair: One issue that we will be looking at in the not too distant future is the role of Electoral Returning Officers in disqualifying votes-certainly in mayoral elections, as compared to parliamentary elections, where there is a handful of votes. In mayoral elections, there has been sort of four figures in various places, some of them larger levels of disqualification than the majorities of the winning candidates. Have you any view on that? Do you feel the reasonableness test should apply to mayoral just as it does to parliamentary?
John Turner: I think that there is always an issue where people are disenfranchised and I think there needs to be some work done about why that should be the case. The current postal voter identifier process, of itself, lends to disenfranchisement because of this matching of signatures and dates of birth, where the data was given up to five years ago. People’s signatures change, particularly older people do have difficulty in terms of completing these forms, and if that leads to an otherwise valid vote being rejected then, yes, I am concerned about it. I think we do need to revisit that issue to ensure that, generally speaking, a good vote should be counted without it being disqualified for what I might call more bureaucratic reasons.
Q183 Chair: Do you accept that conventionally cast votes are now being disqualified, when it is patently obvious to the candidate of all parties that it is a vote for a particular party?
John Turner: Yes, and that is because as previously said the law, as read, has to be followed and that this is a case where the law needs to be changed.
Chair: Thank you. Any final comments?
Michel Saminaden: Can I come in? As a Returning Officer who does have to look at votes regularly, the mayoral system uses the most idiotic system of supplementary vote I have ever seen. Most of those votes are disqualified because people vote for a second preference and not the first. The law tells you that you have to disqualify that. So if you analyse it, you will find that is the reason why the vast majority of the mayoral votes are not counted, because people did not vote for the first, they just voted for the second.
Chair: So I think you are rightly passing the ball back to us to-
Michel Saminaden: A couple of other very quick issues.
Chair: If you could be quick because we have another witness.
Michel Saminaden: It is the use of the registry. I can’t be in front of you without telling you that we have real concerns about commercial use of the register, real concerns about this opting out of the full register. We think it should be an opting in to a commercial register and we have always felt that that needs to be said, and that is about registration. All of this registration thing is very laudable, and it is really good, but nothing will stop me from going to a polling station next May and saying to someone, "My name is John Smith from 43 Acacia Avenue" and getting that vote and voting. It does nothing at all to help that. Our system is fraught and it is open to fraud.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for your time, Michel, Jocelyn, John. It has been extremely informative. Thank you so much for coming today.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Jenny Watson, Chair, The Electoral Commission, Peter Wardle, Chief Executive, The Electoral Commission and Andrew Scallan, Director of Electoral Administration and Boundaries, The Electoral Commission, gave evidence.
Q184 Chair: Jenny, how are you? Welcome. Andrew, Peter, welcome back. Good to see you. Jenny, I understand you wanted to say a couple of things as opening remarks before we ask questions.
Jenny Watson: Yes.
Chair: Fire away. You are very welcome to the Committee this morning.
Jenny Watson: Thank you for the opportunity to come and talk to you. Can I start by introducing my colleagues, who I think most of you have met before? To my right is Peter Wardle, The Electoral Commission’s Chief Executive, and to my left is Andrew Scallan, the Director of Electoral Administration.
I thought it might be helpful to the Committee if I just briefly outlined our position on individual electoral registration. We welcome individual electoral registration. It is the right thing for us to take responsibility for our own votes and it is also the right thing to do because the system is vulnerable to fraud, but it is the biggest change since the universal franchise, therefore it will need careful planning and implementation. That change, just to give you the scale of it, will mean 46 million electors providing their details, broadly speaking, over a two-year period. I think it is inevitable that during this evidence session we will focus more about what we think needs to be addressed, so I would like to start by welcoming the Government’s clear emphasis on the importance of both the accuracy and the completeness of the electoral register. As I think you understand, our formal White Paper response has not yet been submitted but the evidence that we will give you today is a clear indication of our thinking.
If I can perhaps just turn specifically to implementation, particularly the transition phase. We acknowledge that this is a difficult process. It is a challenge to move from household registration to individual registration, but we do have some concerns about what is proposed. Specifically, we believe the Government should carefully consider having a full annual canvass in 2014 because this will provide an opportunity to explain to electors the changes that are coming and help to maintain completeness. We believe the proposal to allow voters to opt out during the transition period is confusing. We think it is time for the edited register to go; it is confusing and this change is a chance to get rid of it. Finally, it is essential that the Government finds a way of checking duplicate entries on the register if people are to have confidence in the new system. Staying with implementation for a moment, it is also essential that there is a plan for the implementation of individual electoral registration by March 2012 and that the necessary legislation is in place by December 2012, in order for Electoral Registration Officers to be able to deliver the scale of the change and have certainty about that.
Turning specifically to the role of the Commission and what we will be doing to support the move to individual registration, we will be carrying out research on the current state of the registers; we will be running a public awareness campaign to tell voters what is happening, what they will need to do, what they can expect. We will be revising our performance standards framework for Electoral Registration Officers, and we also expect to be testing with voters and providing to Registration Officers the templates of the various forms that people will need to use during the process. This is a significant change and it is important to us that voters, wherever they live, can expect a consistent, high quality service and our performance standards will play an important role in this. In all of our work around individual registration, we will be working to assess not only whether the change delivers a greater degree of accuracy of the registers but also the same high standards of completeness that currently we expect.
Perhaps I can finish with a final word about the philosophy behind the White Paper and the role of individuals. We acknowledge that, legally, whether or not to register and to vote is a matter of individual choice, but it is compulsory to provide Registration Officers with the information that they need to compile a register that is as accurate and as complete as possible. I think we have an important civic tradition in the UK; we all share that responsibility for ensuring that the register is as accurate as possible. That is the case even in Northern Ireland at the moment, where there is individual electoral registration but there is no opt out.
The register performs an important civic function, beyond enabling us to vote, and those functions are also important in a democracy. It ensures the public are counted for purposes of representation and drawing boundaries. It ensures that political parties and candidates can contact electors and try and persuade them to vote, and of course it is the register from which potential jurors are drawn. It is also used in law for the purpose of credit reference agency checks and for detecting fraud. Therefore the Government’s position on the opt out may lead to unforeseen consequences, which the Committee may want to explore. For instance, it would be logical to suggest that those who don’t vote in elections may not see the point of registering to vote and it is possible, therefore, that the register could go from around a 90% completeness that we currently have to around, say, a 60% completeness, 65% being the most recent Westminster general election turnout. I think that would be something that would concern us all.
I am very happy for us to answer any questions that you have, Mr Chairman.
Q185 Chair: Thank you, Jenny. The Committee is not easily shocked, or perhaps I should say I am not easily shocked, but I have to say, having just heard Mr John Turner of the Association of Electoral Administrators give a comparable figure to your own, I was rather taken aback by the impact on our democracy, frankly. I had not expected figures of the sort that you have just mentioned and Mr Turner has just mentioned. Are you, in effect four years before the next parliamentary election, warning us, in the nicest possible way, that there could be some very profound impacts unless we get this right?
Jenny Watson: I am not making a prediction. That is important. I think what we are trying to do is look at the other purposes for which the register is used and think perhaps about the unforeseen consequences that having an opt out might produce. It would be logical to think that, if you don’t see the point in voting or you don’t expect that you will turn out-perhaps not only for a general election to the Westminster Parliament; there are, of course many other elections-then you may choose to exercise that opt out. We have to think through the consequences of what that might be. It is also important-and again, John Turner may have spoken about this-to think about how we go into the transition period with as complete a register as we can, which is what takes us to the proposal for keeping the annual canvass.
Q186 Chair: But unless we get a grip on this, it is a possibility that fewer than two-thirds of the people of this country will be registered to vote at the next general election?
Jenny Watson: The register that will be used for the general election in 2015 of course will have the carry forward provision, and we know from Northern Ireland that what caused the drop in entries in the register in Northern Ireland was largely the absence of a carry forward. This proposal does have a carry forward, so we wouldn’t expect people to be dropping off the register before the next general election in 2015 unless they want an absent vote and are not able to provide personal identifiers. It is certainly true that, in the future, the consequences might be that fewer people are on that register. Does that answer your question?
Chair: It answers my question but not my concerns, and that is a matter for us and this House to take account of.
Q187 Stephen Williams: I was going to ask an open question about what you see as the risks but you have essentially answered that, so I will go down into the detail. I follow on from what you, Chairman, were just saying and what Jenny answered in response. The carry over from 2013/2014 will be available in 2015, when we are all up for election-those of us who still have seats in 2015-but of course a lot of those people, although they will be on the register, won’t be living in the same place. Certainly in a city centre constituency, every time I vote myself I see people turn up and they have come to where they used to vote but they have moved and they get told to go somewhere else. Surely there is going to be that on a huge scale in urban areas next time if the register is effectively quite stale?
Jenny Watson: Yes, and that speaks very nicely to our proposal for keeping the annual counts; either Peter or Andrew may want to come in at some point. Perhaps I could start by saying that we know there are around 5 million changes to the register in any 12-month period and the majority of those will be due to people moving house. If we think about the period between the 2013 register and the 2014 register, when individual electoral registration and transition starts, we know that that will already have decayed in accuracy by around 5 to 6 percentage points. That means around 2 million to 3 million people will probably have moved in that time. What that does not do is address the variability of that figure throughout the country. I think we know from our evidence that, in around 281 local authorities, the number of changes on their registers, which are due to home movers, would be 10% or more. That is obviously going to be greater in urban areas. Andrew, do you want to say any more about that?
Andrew Scallan: I think I will just add that what we are saying here is that it is crucial that when you embark on this exercise of individual registration, which as Jenny has said we very much support, you start off with a baseline that is as accurate as possible. Having the canvass in 2014, at whatever time precisely in 2014, is demonstrably the best way of establishing the best baseline information. It has not deteriorated over the period that Jenny has explained, so it gives you the best opportunity to start asking individuals for their personal identifiers.
Peter Wardle: If I can just come in. It summed it up for me in the impact assessment that the Government published with the White Paper. They say the June 2014 register, the one that will be used as the basis for the 2014 write-out, is likely to contain inaccuracies. Approximately 20% of people eligible to re-register under IER may not be invited in that invitation process. That is a very large number of electors to set against the potential savings of not carrying out an annual canvass, and that is what we are concerned about.
Jenny Watson: We know that by far the best way of catching those home movers-the annual canvass is pretty efficient at catching those home movers. There are some things that we can do through campaign activity, but without a canvass there is a hole to fill.
Q188 Stephen Williams: So if there were a hierarchy of risks in this process, when an awful lot of other changes are going on as well in that two-year period, is that what you put at the top of your wish list for the Government to act on-reinstating the 2014 canvass?
Jenny Watson: Certainly in the transition period there are a number of things that we would want. We would like to see a clear plan because, at the moment, there is not a clear plan and Electoral Registration Officers will need that and we will need that. We would like to see the annual canvass in 2014. We would like to see, regardless of what Parliament may decide on the opt out, the provision to opt out in the transition period to be removed, because it is confusing. As I said, we have wider concerns about moving away from the current approach that gives us all a responsibility for making the registers as accurate as possible.
Q189 Stephen Williams: That was three things. Would the hierarchy be canvass reinstated, opt out stopped for the transition period? I am just trying to summarise what you are saying.
Jenny Watson: Certainly a key priority would be to keep the annual canvass in 2014, yes.
Q190 Stephen Williams: Can I go on to another risk that I don’t think we have touched on in previous sessions? This is the third time we have looked at this issue. Of course, since the Committee last met, we have all been absorbed in the details of boundary changes, which I don’t have a vested interest in because I am happy with boundary change and the city of Bristol doesn’t have any cross-border issues into neighbouring authorities, but many other colleagues will now have that. So you can have a parliamentary constituency, hypothetically, where perhaps three electoral regimes-for a district council, say, maybe a unitary authority and a county council perhaps, or whatever-might have responsibility for one parliamentary seat, which we have not really had on any big scale before. Is there a risk there that the integrity of the parliamentary register and administration of the general election in 2015 will be at risk?
Jenny Watson: I think that speaks to another risk that we identified in our written evidence, which is that currently we have a performance standards regime so we are able to monitor the performance of EROs. Andrew may want to say more about the progress of that performance standards work over the past three years. Currently, we have no ability to intervene to ask an Electoral Registration Officer to do anything, or put anything right, if we think that they are not doing what they should be or they are not on track. Perhaps that particularly matters during the transition to individual registration because there is a lot that needs to be done; it needs to be done consistently across the country. For example, voters need to be offered the same mechanisms to confirm registration or to provide their details throughout Great Britain. It is no use some EROs saying, "We’re going to offer this" others saying, "We’re going to offer that". So the consistency point is very important and I think all of you would rightly expect that in your constituencies you would have consistent performance of the register, whichever local authority it was drawn from.
I don’t think we will be able to achieve that unless we have a greater ability to intervene. At the moment, the principle of that power is not accepted, and I would ask for the Committee’s support in helping us get to the stage where the principle of us having a power to intervene could be accepted.
Do you want to just briefly say anything else about performance standards?
Andrew Scallan: Yes. We have had performance standards for three years, and what our performance standards were designed to do was to make sure that there was good planning and organisation, and that EROs were carrying out all the functions that were required of them. We had issues around public awareness and making sure that they were looking at accurate databases for addresses and they were getting information from as wide a range of sources as possible. What we have done over three years has seen a steady improvement in EROs’ performance. I think the challenge will be, when we change the performance standards to reflect the new framework that we will be working to, to make sure that we use everything we can to make sure that there is consistency.
Constituency boundaries crossing local authority boundaries are not new but I understand that there are now some spectacular complications. As Jenny said, that issue of consistency is crucial because there are things that EROs can do to make sure that their registers have as many people on as possible, but some very small administrative issues could result in a differentiation within particular wards that will create constituencies. So it is important that we have the ability to set the standards correctly to make sure that everything is going out but also intervene, in a timely fashion, and try and make EROs do what we think they need to do to achieve that consistency.
Jenny Watson: Currently, we have the ability to ask the Secretary of State to issue a direction, but I don’t know that any of us would necessarily think that that would be the fastest way to get a change to happen. Timeliness might be quite important. I should perhaps just draw your attention to the fact that, despite the fact that we have seen progress in performance standards, I think we said in our evidence that we still have around 45 Electoral Registration Officers where we have seen no improvement in aspects of their performance over that time. They are meeting the standards but there has been no improvement in one or other of the standards, and I don’t think that we have the latitude in the transition to individual electoral registration to continue in the way that we have so far.
Q191 Stephen Williams: Is that an internal assessment that you do or is it something you publish? Do you say, "X local authority is an exemplar in its field and does all these good things, yet Y local authority is pretty terrible"? Is that in the public domain?
Jenny Watson: We do publish it. We publish a report on our performance standards every year. In fact, we recently published an interim report where we had some concerns about Electoral Registration Officers and we can make sure that that is sent to the Committee.
Q192 Stephen Williams: I think that is probably something we would be interested in. A final question: what would you say is the main constraint on Electoral Registration Officers and their departments, if they have one, on improving their performance? Is it the fact that they don’t have the big stick regulator, which you would like to be, hanging over their heads, is it budgets or is it just variability in the quality of the staff and other responsibilities they may have in small district councils to discharge their duties?
Jenny Watson: Let me just correct you: I don’t want to be a big stick regulator. What I would like us to be is to have a backstop power that we can use if we need it, but having said that I would ask Andrew to answer the question.
Andrew Scallan: It is not a terribly helpful answer. I think it is all of the above, given that there are 387 Electoral Registration Officers. There is such a variety of authority size and staff complements, from authorities with electorates of 38,000, to electorates of 750,000. So you have such a wide variety and different responses. I know from your earlier evidence that individual Electoral Registration Officers have taken their responsibilities differently and so there is variability across the country.
Jenny Watson: We will be doing a survey, which I think we will be publishing in 2014, asking people if they have adequate resources to carry out their role as an ERO. So that evidence will also be in the public domain.
Chair: I have to put on the record that that wasn’t a planted question by the Chairman about moving from one Electoral Registration Officer to three, but I am very grateful that the question was asked.
Stephen Williams: I have no vested interest; that is why I thought I would ask it on behalf of others.
Q193 Andrew Griffiths: Thank you for coming in today. Jenny, you have touched a few times on the lack of power to intervene-that you don’t feel you have enough of a stick to be able to wield at certain times. Can you be a little bit more specific about that? Can you tell us what discussions you have had with government about the powers that you feel you need-what those powers are and what the government response has been to date?
Jenny Watson: I think it would be more helpful for Andrew to answer that because he is having those conversations.
Andrew Scallan: Yes. What we have is a power to publish a report that explains how Electoral Registration Officers are performing. That is a power to name and shame, to put it crudely. As Jenny has said, the Secretary of State has a power to direct individual Electoral Registration Officers, or all Electoral Registration Officers, on a recommendation from The Electoral Commission. What we don’t have a power to do, other than the power of persuasion, is to go in and, if we discover that a local authority is not providing to the Electoral Registration Officer sufficient funds to carry out their functions, to make people do things; we have no power to do that.
The issue for the register is that it is not something over which you want to allow a long term for improvement. The register is compiled in a fairly short period of time and relates to an election that is going to take place a fairly short time afterwards. What we are concerned to do is to intervene in a timely fashion to make sure that action is taken so that, when it is published, the electoral register is as accurate and as complete as possible and then when it is used for an election it is in as good order as it can be.
Jenny Watson: To give you perhaps an example that relates specifically to individual registration, one of the things that people are going to be asked to do is to provide more personal data, National Insurance numbers. It will be very important for the public to know that that data is being used correctly, stored safely. There are a bundle of issues around that. If in the transition phase we were to find in a particular authority-I don’t suggest we would-that we thought there were aspects around that that were not being well managed we would have no ability, other than shouting it from the rooftops, to make any change happen. It might be in that case that that would be sufficient. I suspect it wouldn’t inspire confidence in the performance of that person. It might be better to have a different kind of route that would enable action to be taken that didn’t run the risk of that public undermining of confidence.
Q194 Andrew Griffiths: The government response to those points you made-what have government said so far when you have asked for those powers?
Andrew Scallan: They are under consideration. It is a continuing dialogue we’re having with Government now for some time, both in connection with electoral registration and with elections.
Q195 Andrew Griffiths: Can we talk about personal identification? We have heard from a number of witnesses previously that they have some concerns about people’s ability to provide a National Insurance number as their way of identifying themselves. We have had suggestions that there might be other forms of identification that could be used-particularly for older people, for instance, who may not have their NI number at hand. Have you thought about that? Do you have any views on the current proposal?
Jenny Watson: The first thing to say is that we know, from the work that we have done in asking people whether they think they would be able to find their National Insurance number or know it already, that the majority people either know it or know where to find it. I think from the last question that we asked on that, around 74% of people said that they thought they could provide that information if they needed to. Having said that-
Q196 Andrew Griffiths: 74%?
Jenny Watson: Yes, from-
Andrew Griffiths: That is still 26% of people who couldn’t.
Jenny Watson: There are people who say they don’t know or at the moment would say they couldn’t. One of the things we said in the evidence is that, for those people who cannot provide a National Insurance number, there needs to be a simple and easy process for them to find the right level of information to support their identity in order to be able to go on the register. The system that works in Northern Ireland at the present looks to us as if it might be a good model to follow, which is two pieces of other identifying information or, as a last resort, to be able to attest to your identity. We are very aware of those issues, and I know you have heard evidence from, particularly, organisations who might speak for disabled people and work with older people. We are already talking to-and Peter may want to say more about this-some of those organisations to think about how we might work with them. Do you want to add anything to that?
Peter Wardle: Yes. Clearly it is a problem. Some people don’t have a National Insurance number. Some people certainly may have had one but don’t know it or can’t find it. So I think our position is that the National Insurance number is agreed to be the best available, easy, straightforward check of identity and that is the main thing it introduces. It means that when somebody applies to go on the electoral register there can be a check made reasonably straightforwardly against a single database that says, "It looks as though this is not a bogus entry". That tackles the accuracy issue with the electoral register that we have talked about and which there is evidence in the Government’s White Paper about some of the problems with that, both in relation to election fraud and, more widely, identity and economic fraud. Where somebody does not have or can’t find their National Insurance number, there clearly has to be an alternative.
Just two points: one is that we have said in our evidence to the Committee that we think the Government’s approach, which is to almost move into a separate regime if somebody can’t find their National Insurance number, seems onerous. We think it is better to have a smoother transition-to say, "First question, do you have a National Insurance number? Can you produce it?" If the answer is, "No, I cannot or I have not" then there is a clear alternative. It just seems that we can come up with a smoother process there.
The second point is that we are a bit concerned at some of the language in the White Paper, which seems to suggest that if people choose not to provide their National Insurance number they can get a free pass to a less secure method of identity. We are concerned about that because it is going to undermine the point of improving the accuracy of the register. That may be language in the White Paper, but it is one of the points we have highlighted and we will certainly be highlighting when we go back to the Government.
We want a very clear position that says, "If we think the National Insurance number is the right thing, that should be the starting point. We will make it as easy as possible and explain to people". That 26% of people were just asked on the street, "Do you know where it is?" I suspect it would be better in the context of public awareness campaigns that say why this is important and will help people to find it.
Jenny Watson: We would expect to be working with charities like Age UK, people like Scope, organisations like that who can help get a message to the people that they are working with and can support people to be able to fill in the forms. One of the things that has been raised with us, for example, is that if somebody is in residential care they are unlikely to have a utility bill or something like that with their identity on, so there does need to be a process that can allow for that. One of the things we have learnt from Northern Ireland is that house-to-house canvasses played quite an important role there in helping some people to fill in forms where they weren’t confident with doing that themselves. So I think there is some learning there, which we need to take forward and that again is another reason why the annual canvass in 2014 becomes important.
Q197 Andrew Griffiths: One final question, if I may. Do you have, Jenny, any concerns? We hear some catastrophic predictions about the potential drop-off on the electoral roll. Given the news that has already been alluded to today about boundary changes and the new regime, do you have any concerns about the implications that a drop-off on the register might have for democracy?
Jenny Watson: One of the things that we learnt from Northern Ireland is that, when you introduce individual electoral registration without a carry forward-and thinking about in Northern Ireland a 10 percentage point drop-there is an impact and people do start to ask questions about what has happened to the register. So for us, that is one of the reasons why there are safeguards such as the carry forward, keeping the annual canvass, doing everything we can to keep the very high level of completeness that we currently have is so important. I don’t have any concerns-
Q198 Andrew Griffiths: In relation to constituency sizes?
Jenny Watson: Constituency sizes, well, the register is always changing, isn’t it? At any one time it is a snapshot. So by definition, practically from the moment it is pulled together, there are always people who can come on to it or who will be dying and therefore leaving it. I think that is where our concern about the opt out is relevant. I don’t have any doubt at all about the principle of introducing individual electoral registration. It is the right thing to do. It is an outdated system, it is vulnerable to fraud, and it is right that we should take responsibility for our own vote and make sure that we have a system that can deliver that. So the principle of individual registration on its own-I have no doubt about.
Q199 Tristram Hunt: Could I just pursue that issue in the sense of, is it worth the candle? If we are potentially seeing a loss of a third of voters from the electoral register, as you suggest-90% down to 60% to 65%-do the benefits of individual electoral registration outweigh the potential haemorrhage to our democracy?
Jenny Watson: I think we said in our evidence that we would not be comfortable to move away from a method of approach of compiling the register that builds on the tradition that we have in the UK. It is that there is some kind of collective responsibility that we all have to provide that information to make the register as accurate as it possibly can be. There is no reason why we cannot have both a more accurate register-although if I may just raise one point that we are concerned about, there is no ability to check duplicate entries with the Government’s current proposal; we would like to hear a bit more about that-and the high levels of completeness that we currently have. There is no reason why you cannot have both with individual registration.
Q200 Tristram Hunt: Yet we saw a drop of 10% in Northern Ireland originally. We heard last week from senior academics of a potential drop of 20%. They were talking of a profound impact. We know, from the history of Northern Ireland, that this hits young people, students, people with learning difficulties, people living in areas of high social deprivation. So again there are potentially profound democratic consequences of this that, arguably, if we can’t get it right, outweigh the benefits in terms of fraud and responsibility.
Jenny Watson: You have just talked a lot about what happened in Northern Ireland, and I think we have all learnt a lot from what happened in Northern Ireland and the way in which individual electoral registration was introduced there. So, for example, the 10 percentage point drop we know, from the research that has been done subsequently, was almost entirely due to the lack of a carry forward. There will be a carry forward until after the 2015 general election.
We have learnt from Northern Ireland that data matching can provide a powerful tool to reach some of those groups that you just talked about who are less likely-we know from our own research-to be on the register. We are currently evaluating data matching pilots at the moment. We are not in a position to be able to tell you what that is showing, but we will be by the time that legislation is coming through the House. The other thing, which Andrew might want to say something about, is what we have learnt in Northern Ireland about the brilliant work that can be done with schools to make sure that young people who are attainers can go on to the register. Do you want to say something?
Q201 Chair: Before Andrew comes in, just to pursue Tristram’s point, I am not clear now: is the-whatever it was-35% fall, an idea or are you saying it is not going to happen or it may happen unless we do certain things? I am not quite clear about that.
Jenny Watson: What I am saying is that the current proposal allows people, when they receive their form, to tick a box and say, "Not really interested, please don’t bother me again", and to be able to do that for each canvass cycle that they receive the form. It is close to giving people an option to, if they choose, opt out of being on the register. With that opt out proposal, it is not illogical to suggest that the people who do not, at that time, think that they want to vote, or perhaps see a point in voting, may choose not to be on the register because they may not think about the-
Chair: That would largely account for your 35% speculation.
Jenny Watson: That would make the difference between the 90%-plus completeness that we now have and the potential for there to be a significant drop. It is not a prediction; it is the potential for that.
Peter Wardle: The 65% figure is simply the turnout at the last general election. If that were to happen, and only the people who were intending to vote in the next general election registered then you would have a figure of 65%. Realistically it will be somewhere between the two.
Chair: Voting numbers and registration numbers are obviously very different. They are two different sets of statistics, aren’t they? I am sorry, I am not quite clear, Peter, what you are drawing from the last election.
Peter Wardle: 65% of people voted in the 2010 general election. If the only people who choose to register themselves to vote individually are those who are intending to vote, then you might extrapolate from that that you get a figure of around 65%.
Chair: Registration will drop dramatically but turnout could even be 100%.
Peter Wardle: You would get a 100% turnout on that; registration could drop dramatically.
If I could just go back to Mr Hunt’s point, I think the whole thrust of what we are saying at the moment is that there are things we can do to get it right. You said if we don’t get it right we could face these real threats to democracy. The whole thrust of what we are saying is there are ways in which we think we can get it right, and that is what we are trying to see at the moment.
Q202 Tristram Hunt: My fear is what we saw for the boundary review and the figures that they used between May and December, for example-we were promised by the Deputy Prime Minister a big push to get people on the register, so it was all sort of credible, but absolutely nothing happened. There are some excellent people getting people on to the register and providing civil society but also, to be frank-budgets and focus and, "This Government doesn’t seem particularly keen on people voting"-there isn’t a great deal of confidence about whether you would reach those young, disadvantaged, disabled communities who will be falling off the register.
Jenny Watson: There are a number of responses to that. Obviously, our campaigns that we run, year on year, very often do target precisely those groups of people who are not on the register. If I think about the campaign we ran before the last Westminster general election, including on social media like Facebook, we had 500,000 voter registration forms downloaded from our site. So I think there are things that you can do. There are Registration Officers who work very hard to make sure that they do have good public participation strategies and they do engage in their communities, but our performance standards will tell you that some don’t work as hard, and again that is where the consistency point comes in. Key for us is, as I keep saying, the annual canvass in 2014, which will make the baseline figure for that transition as complete as it can be.
Q203 Tristram Hunt: Why do you think the Government then doesn’t want the carry over for the December 2015 register, which is, what is going to redraw all the boundaries for 2020?
Jenny Watson: I think that is a question that you are probably best off to put to the Minister when he comes to give evidence to you, rather than me speculating about it.
Q204 Tristram Hunt: Do you think it is a potential problem and fault of the plans that exist at the moment? Having seen the chaos of the current boundary review, at the next one-if, say, we go down to 70% or 75% from where we are at 90%-you are going to have extraordinary new constituencies on this utilitarian, numerical basis that will have a marked effect on the democratic make-up of the constituencies in this country.
Jenny Watson: It is fair to say that our primary concern has been the use of the register for people who want to register to vote in order to be able to cast their vote. For that reason, the carry forward for the election is our priority. What we have tried to do is to draw the Committee’s attention to the wider use to which that register is put and therefore say there may be consequences-unforeseen consequences, I suspect-from those changes to the register.
Our focus on the carry over is for participation in the election, because what we don’t want to see is voters who want to cast a vote turning up a polling station and being told that they have been taken off the register. That would significantly undermine confidence in our democracy and that is why that carry forward is important.
Q205 Tristram Hunt: Okay, last question. I accept the issue about if everyone registers to vote we get down to 65% of those who voted and we have a sort of Ceausescu-style turnout. But being on the electoral roll has other consequences in terms of jury duty, and those people who are not going to be on the electoral roll, who might not be interested in voting but are also now stepping outside of civil society. Is that something Government should be promoting-this swathe of people who are essentially taking themselves out of civil society?
Jenny Watson: I think it is slightly broader than that because, of course, it is also used by credit reference agencies to make credit checks and Parliament has decided that the register can be used for the prevention of fraud. So there are other important consequences. I think that is why, as I say, we are highlighting to you that the opt out, if it is retained, has the potential to make a significant change to the level of completeness of the register, which may have much wider consequences for our democracy. We seem to have presented those arguments to you in a way that means that you are exploring them, and that is what we wanted to do.
Q206 Tristram Hunt: As someone who believes in democracy and whose job is getting people to vote and the counting of those votes in the right and proper way, do you regard voting as a civic duty or a nice personal choice that I might be interested in or I might not be interested in?
Jenny Watson: How I might regard it for myself might be very different from how other people regard it. I think it is great when lots of people vote. I think it is great when you run inspiring campaigns that mean that people want to turn out to vote, but there is a baton change. We have seen our role as being very much about getting people on to the register and then saying, "Well, now it is over to all of you to make people want to turn out and vote for your party". So my objective is that we keep the high levels of completeness that we currently have and that we have a more accurate register. That is what I am looking for.
Q207 Tristram Hunt: Will there be a cultural change when it goes from being a civic duty to a personal choice? Would you get more people on the register thinking, "This is my duty. If I don’t do that I will get fined £1,000, or do I want to sign up for this like a Nectar card and whatever"?
Jenny Watson: I think what we said in our evidence is that we would not be comfortable with moving away from an approach that says we have a broader responsibility to provide that information to make the registers as accurate as they can be. We are in a pre-legislative scrutiny phase and that is the debate we are currently having with you.
Q208 Simon Hart: You may have answered this while I was out. If so, I apologise. We are talking about the overall effect of the proposals in the numerical sense that Tristram Hunt refers to. Do you see this might have some regional variation, some geographical variation, and if so are you concerned that certain areas of Britain may respond differently-urban-suburb and north-south? Do you see variations in that respect that puts a sort of democratic question mark over the proposals?
Jenny Watson: I would say that we already know that there are differences in the rate at which people respond to the annual canvass, so perhaps some figures around that might be the best example. We know that in the annual canvass-when people are sent out a form, and perhaps a first reminder-Registration Officers in London are probably getting around a 60% response rate; out of London, that is probably a response rate in the mid-70s.
With door knocking and a more concerted effort, and all the hard work that goes into that, those figures are probably going to go up to around 90% in London and 95% outside London. So there are some variations already and we know from our work that people who are in private rented sector accommodation, younger people, and some black and ethnic minority communities, are less likely to find their way into the registers. So if you take where those people live, that would indicate to you that there would be some geographic variation.
Simon Hart: Yes, I am very grateful. Thank you.
Jenny Watson: I am conscious that we still haven’t had, Andrew, an opportunity to tell Mr Hunt about the brilliant work in Northern Ireland.
Chair: I will bring Andrew in. I have not forgotten you, Andrew, but I do need to get Eleanor in. She has been waiting very patiently.
Q209 Mrs Laing: A very quick question to start with, and this is a subject that I have pursued over several years about the accountability of Returning Officers and Registration Officers. We discussed this half an hour ago. Simply, do you consider that The Electoral Commission needs further powers to be given to them by the Government, in order to ensure the consistency of the way in which Returning Officers and Electoral Registration Officers behave throughout the country?
Jenny Watson: The short answer to that question is yes. The slightly longer answer is that-as I think I said earlier-I don’t think the principle of us having those powers is yet accepted. That is where I would ask for the Committee’s support because without the powers, particularly around Registration Officers, given that we are talking about individual registration today, I don’t think in the time that we have available we have the latitude to allow for people to take time to improve performance, where that needs to change.
Q210 Mrs Laing: You will recall that, before the 2010 general election, when some Returning Officers were simply refusing to follow a general advice that counting should take place as soon as the polls closed in the election, we had to amend primary legislation on the Floor of the House in order to make that happen. As you said earlier, it’s surely not the right way to take forward an administrative issue of that kind.
Jenny Watson: That may have been possible in the case of the timing of a count issue. I don’t think there is any way that that would be possible for dealing with individual problems in individual local authorities in the transition to individual registration, no.
Q211 Mrs Laing: Indeed. So further powers are necessary. Thank you.
Coming on to a different aspect-and I say this, Mr Chairman, at the risk of opening a civil liberties can of worms-it has emerged, in the evidence that we have heard over these last few sessions and this morning, that there is a conflict between privacy, data protection and the rights of the individual on one side, and the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the electoral register on the other side. Jenny, you said earlier that we have a civic tradition in which we share responsibilities for compiling a register, but you have also made reference to the fact that the electoral register, which we are discussing, is not just an electoral register. It is used for other purposes. For example, it is used for credit reference agencies, as you have said. It is used in fraud prevention, it is used for selection of juries and it is used-as we are now discovering controversially, of course-for the decision on where boundaries for constituencies should be.
Given that, is there a case for changing the balance of obligation and saying that instead of it being up to the individual to register himself or herself as a voter, that the burden of responsibility should possibly fall upon the Registration Officer to compile a register using data from other sources, which we are now trialling in data sharing pilots? Is there a case for saying that it should be up to the Electoral Registration Officer to compile an accurate Register of Electors-there would have to be another step and then the individual citizen can amend that by saying either, "I shouldn’t be on this register" or, "My sister who lives next door should"?
Jenny Watson: I think the challenge with that in our system would be that we have quite a complicated franchise. I don’t know, Andrew, if you want to say a little bit more about that.
Andrew Scallan: In many respects, if data matching works, you are almost in a position where you are being given a lot of information about the electorate in its widest sense in your area, so you almost have, if it works, a virtual register. What data matching requires you to do I think is your point, which is to say, "We know that you now live at this address. Do you qualify to go on the electoral register?" The write-out will be, "This is the requirement to be" so you will get the information back.
So I think the data matching and the current data matching powers that people have do almost give the Electoral Registration Officers the power to have that oversight over their entire area. But including people on the register-because you can’t have an automatic system, I don’t think, simply because you are informed by another agency, "That is someone who has now moved into an address" because you would need to be satisfied about the eligibility to be on the register. You couldn’t have an automatic system, so I think there will always be an interaction needed between the ERO and any potential elector.
Q212 Mrs Laing: You said "almost", and the point that I am getting at is that reversal of the rebuttable presumption-that if the Registration Officer says, "We have this information. You live at this address. You appear to be aged over 18. You appear to be a UK citizen. You are on the register. Tell us if you shouldn’t be or tell us if other people should be".
Andrew Scallan: I think there is a danger in an approach that assumes that you are on unless you tell us you aren’t qualified.
Mrs Laing: What is the danger? That is what I am getting at.
Andrew Scallan: The danger is that the register becomes less accurate because you will have people who are not eligible to be on the register. There are nationality issues in terms of registration, in terms of getting on the register in the first place-but then the nationality issues dictate which type of elections you are entitled to take part in.
Peter Wardle: If I can give an example. Effectively, what you are suggesting is what happens with the Council Tax register. The council doesn’t wait for you to say, "Yes, please, I’d like to pay Council Tax". It says, "We know you live there and we’ll send you the bill", but the fact-
Q213 Mrs Laing: That would be part of data sharing, wouldn’t it?
Peter Wardle: The fact that they send you a bill means there is a very strong incentive on you to tell them if they are wrong. I think the difficulty with the accuracy of the electoral register is that nothing particularly might happen to you. You might be summoned for jury service, I suppose, but quite a lot of the rest of the things that the electoral register is used for are a bit passive. You might have your boundaries redrawn on the basis of an inaccurate register compiled that way, but the electors would never have any incentive to do anything about it. If they don’t turn out to vote not so much happens directly to the register that gives them the incentive, and I think that is Andrew’s point.
Rather than just leaving it there, you would want to at least give a proactive request to the elector to say, "We think you should be on the electoral register. Will you please confirm that your details are right?" I think there is then a wider debate about both what the electoral register is used for beyond voting and the starting point, which is do you reverse the tradition we have had in this country for many, many years, which is that it is a voluntary process. There is no legal obligation to be on an electoral register.
Jenny Watson: It is worth just bearing in mind that the current high levels of completeness we have with that voluntary approach compare favourably. There were almost 8% to 9% of people not present on the register. That is roughly the same comparison with Australia, which does have compulsory voting. So I think we do pretty well, given where we are, notwithstanding Mr Hart’s question about whether that might vary in some places across the country.
Mrs Laing: This is a wider debate. I am just starting it. Thank you.
Q214 Chair: Jenny, how satisfied are you with the Government’s proposals for reform in a number of other areas on electoral administration? I see from your evidence that there are some gaps. There are also some recent announcements from Government, even in the last 24 hours. Are there things that you would like to take this opportunity, since you are in front of the Committee, to put on the record?
Jenny Watson: There are some things that are welcome. Particularly, we heard yesterday, I think, about the expansion of the ability of people to get proxy votes at short notice. The longer timetable is also welcome, that change. Andrew might want to say a little bit about despatch of postal ballots, because that doesn’t seem to have been addressed and that is significant for service voters and overseas voters.
Chair: I am conscious that I cut Andrew short. He was about to answer when I pursued Tristram’s questions. Andrew, my apologies. Now is your chance.
Andrew Scallan: Thank you, Chair; I hope it is worth waiting for. I think the issue in relation to postal votes is that the registration timetable is separate from the election timetable, and what we want to do-I think we have all welcomed this attention about the election timetable-is make sure that the registration timetable also amends to make sure that postal votes can be issued in a timely fashion. So I think there is still some more work to be done on that, but we certainly welcome the timetable change.
If I might then pursue the other point, and just going back to Mr Hart’s point earlier as well about variations in regions and Jenny’s answer about canvass response rates. One of our performance standards is to make sure that each ERO fully understands the nature of their local authority area, which we would hope they would, and have strategies designed to deal with particular areas, be that rural or inner city issues. That is one of the things that we will continue through as we move forward into individual elector registration.
In connection with Northern Ireland and the work that has been done with attainers, I am conscious that the Committee in the previous session heard about the response rate to the write-out to students being about 60%. It was quite interesting, and Mrs Laing pursued the issue of what further action was taken. Really it was a fairly passive response, which was, "We write out once and then we stop". I think that is quite interesting because the general response rate to the write-out is very often 60% and it is about then pursuing people to try and get their names on the register.
Proposals under individual electoral registration still require the Electoral Registration Officer to carry out their section 9A duties, which is it is never just one attempt unless you get an answer back. So you would write out initially and then you would continue to write to that person and pester them to try and get a positive response. So I think the Northern Ireland experience demonstrated that data matching provided for a huge increase in the number of attainers, but the process that would be gone through in GB under the new regime will require more persistence from the Electoral Registration Officers.
Jenny Watson: There are three other electoral administration provisions, if I may just mention, Mr Chairman. The first is that, when we publish our report on the conduct of the polls this May, we will have some more detailed numbers about the number of ballot papers in postal ballots that didn’t find their way into the count because the signatures were not matched with the signatures that the ERO had on record. We have previously recommended to government that there be a greater power to refresh signatures or to write to electors and say, "Your signature seems to have changed. Can you give us a fresh one?" I notice that has not yet been taken forward and we still do have a concern that without that there are some electors who are being potentially disenfranchised, particularly thinking about changes in signature with age, which is one of the things that happens.
The second is a point that Mrs Laing referred to earlier, which is not addressing the issue of what happens at close of poll if there is a queue at a polling station at 10.00 pm. The Committee will recall that we had said that we thought that that should be changed to allow anybody queuing to vote. I note that the Government has said that Returning Officer standards should be addressed first. That is fine, as far as it goes, but it is Mrs Laing’s point about the ability to ensure that we could still be in a position at the next general election where our advice and guidance is, "Here are some ratios, please follow them" and people say, "Well, I don’t want to do that" and there are queues and people can’t vote. So that is not very helpful.
Chair: I think there was very strong sympathy around the Committee for that view, if I may say.
Jenny Watson: My final point is that we raised previously in our report at the Westminster general election in May 2010 the issue of the need for government to explore presentation of ID at polling stations, which the Committee will know is currently in place in Northern Ireland and operates with no problems. There is no evidence of anybody being disenfranchised because they can’t provide their ID. Of course, one of the issues is, if we diminish the vulnerability to fraud that exists in the registration process, that there is a risk that anybody who might want to seek an opportunity for fraud will go elsewhere where the system may be more vulnerable. Therefore, we do think ID at polling stations is something that needs to be kept on the agenda.
Q215 Chair: Andrew Griffiths led a conversation the other day around the prospect of people being allowed to vote on election day; to register and vote. Do you have a view on that?
Jenny Watson: I think it is not a priority for us at the moment because actually we are focusing on getting to a position where individual electoral registration is implemented differently. Andrew, I don’t know if there is anything else you want to say about that.
Andrew Scallan: One of the things that Parliament would have to think about is that-and I pick up Mrs Laing’s earlier reference to the speed at which the results were delivered-in countries where that is allowed, you can register at the last moment. Australia and Canada both have provisions like this; there is a provisional result to the election.
For example, I think in Australia if you turn up to vote at the polling station you are given a ballot paper, you are allowed to vote, but it is a bit like being stopped by police in your car. You must turn up at the electoral office within the next week, I think it is, with proof of ID to demonstrate that you were in fact an eligible elector and you were not somebody who had already voted and been ticked off under another name. Of course, that would mean that we would have to wait for the official result of the election.
Q216 Andrew Griffiths: Am I right in thinking that in America you can register to vote on the day and then receive a ballot paper, so that they check your eligibility first and then-
Andrew Scallan: I think that is true in certain states and I believe it is because they have an online link to their driving licence register, which in the country of the automobile is a pretty good proxy for the number of voting citizens.
Q217 Chair: But not dependent on that link. Certainly 20 years ago, prior to online linkage, I was in various parts of the States. It may not be in Presidentials but it may be in other elections. Where there is a will there is a way, I think. A telephone call from the front of the town hall to the back can normally ensure registration and a vote for someone who is eligible.
A final one, Jenny. Since we were all here voting at gone 10.00 pm on Monday and 10.00 pm on Tuesday, I was intrigued by our proposal for advance voting and wondered about what the practical implications of that were, how you would do that.
Jenny Watson: One of the things that consistently has arisen in our post-poll questioning of people as to, "Why did you vote, or, if you didn’t vote, why did you not vote?" is that many people say, "On the day I was too busy" or, "I happened not to be there and it would have helped me to be able to vote earlier". So the proposal for advance voting that we have been suggesting was that the Government might think about having a polling station in each constituency-maybe a couple of polling stations in each constituency-which would be available for a period prior to polling day for people who can’t turn up and vote in person on polling day.
Peter Wardle: The point about that is that in all advanced democracies, more and more people are choosing not to vote on polling day itself. In quite a lot of other countries, the majority of people who don’t vote on polling day vote using an advance voting facility. We don’t offer that. We only offer postal voting, and the difference between postal voting and advance voting is that advance voting gives you the same guarantee of supervised secrecy as you get on polling day, whereas postal voting doesn’t. We know that there is a significant minority of people who are uncomfortable with postal voting simply because it takes the whole process out of the supervised and secret context.
Jenny Watson: The other debate that I know Parliament has had from time to time is: should there be weekend voting? Of course, advance voting would give the opportunity for those who would find it more convenient to vote at a weekend to do so, but also keeping polling day in the week; it would just simply offer a greater opportunity.
Q218 Chair: That may be something I may negotiate with my now three Electoral Registration Officers who I may need to deal with in the future. Jenny, I am going to allow you, if colleagues will allow me to do this, one minute or so just to wind up because I think there has been some information conveyed to the Committee today about the possible impacts, which are pretty significant and pretty profound. Are there any closing remarks that you would like to make to put that in perspective?
Jenny Watson: I think there is only one thing that I would like to say-I am conscious that we have not had very much of an opportunity to discuss it with the Committee. It is the other side of the coin from the completeness. It is the accuracy point, and one of the things that we said in our written evidence is that we think there needs to be an opportunity to detect duplicate entries in the system. At the moment, that is not there. We are not clear from the Government’s proposal how that would happen. I don’t want to overstate the risk of what could happen, but I think it would be negligent of me not to suggest to the Committee what is at least a logical possibility if the opt out that is currently proposed were to stay in the way that is there.
Chair: Jenny, Andrew and Peter, thank you very much indeed for your time this morning and for some very thought provoking evidence. Thank you very much indeed and thank you, colleagues.