Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Joint First Report


108. The Government has "broadly accepted" recommendations from the Electoral Commission aimed at the creation of a national electronic register of electors, formed from individual registers compiled and managed locally to mandatory standards.[243] In evidence to this inquiry the Department for Constitutional Affairs and ODPM gave two reasons for their support. First, without national mandatory standards, the variation in software used by EROs could "create obstacles to the efficient conduct of both 'rolling registration' and e-voting pilot schemes". At present, each local ERO may choose which software to use for running the registration system, or indeed whether to use computerised systems at all. There are six main private sectors companies, each supplying a different software to some EROs, and there are around 20 in-house systems unique to those authorities.[244] These need to be at least compatible if modernisation of the process is going to work. Second, the Government argued that a national register could assist those bodies, including the Electoral Commission, the Government itself, credit reference agencies and the political parties, which need copies of the electoral register from every ERO for the conduct of their statutory or commercial business.[245] Rather than approaching over 400 EROs, they could access the data through one central point. The Labour party saw this as a great advantage: "The cost of managing 600-odd different registers, which are given to us in different formats, and turning those into a campaigning tool … is extremely high and over a year the costs seem to increase disproportionately."[246]

109. There are other advantages of a national register. The Electoral Commission believes that it would help political parties and themselves to fulfil their statutory duty to confirm the permissibility of individuals who make donations to political parties.[247] Furthermore, it would facilitate research into the extent of non-registration and the impact of rolling registration and other practical initiatives.[248] Other witnesses stressed the support a national register would offer to the modernisation agenda. The Southampton City Council Liberal Democrat Group and Southampton City Council Labour Group summarised the "many additional electoral benefits" it could bring as follows:

    it will assist in cleansing the database and reduce duplicate registration. It will enable changes in registration closer to polling day rather than the early deadline currently applied and above all will provide the infrastructure for electronic and remote voting.[249]

The Centre for Digital Security, Privacy and Trust at St Andrew's University added to this list that it would permit voters to register once only and then have their records transferred electronically between local registers when they moved across local authority boundaries, thus resulting in cost-savings for the authorities involved.[250]

110. Electoral administrators agreed that it "would be the platform for e-voting to enable an elector to record their vote from outside the area where they are registered for voting"; but expressed the view that "it is doubtful whether a national electoral register … will be of much assistance to the maintenance and updating the electoral register", because EROs would still have to send out forms to those who had moved house or investigate cases where duplication appeared likely.[251] The Association of Electoral Administrators's chief priority, however, was to ensure that the register should continue to be locally maintained.[252] This was the concern which lay behind most negative comments on the desirability of a national register. For example, the Conservative party supported "common standards for electoral register data" but in the context that "ownership of electoral registers should remain with local authorities".[253] The electoral practitioners argued that in this way the register would continue to benefit from "local knowledge and identity with their local authority".[254] As this is also the position adopted by the Electoral Commission and accepted by the Government, a national electoral register based on locally-owned and maintained local registers appears to be the most appropriate way forward.

The CORE project

111. Moves have already been made by the Government towards the creation of a register as described above. The CORE (Co-ordinated On-line Register of Electors) project was announced to Parliament in January 2004, and is managed by the ODPM and co-sponsored by the Department for Constitutional Affairs. It is designed to modernise the electoral registration process by introducing standardised electronic registers across the country and subsequently putting in place a national system to provide authorised users on-line access to electoral registration data. There are two phases to the project. The first will standardise local electronic registers across the country and make them fully interoperable, regardless of the local system in use. The second phase will allow authorised users to access local registration data centrally and will support a multi-channelled, e-enabled general election. CORE will not replace the locally-compiled registers but would require them to be produced in a compliant way, with a copy submitted to the Government for incorporation in a national database.

112. There is widespread support for the CORE project and witnesses were keen to stress its importance. For example, the Electoral Commission told us that

The three main political parties agreed with this assessment of the value of CORE, with the Conservative party telling us that "we are fully signed up to the creation of a national register" and the Liberal Democrats voicing the "broad consensus that there is a deep level of frustration at the huge variation in data standards and quality of data on the register".[256]

113. This goodwill makes the lack of apparent progress on the CORE project of particular concern. The Liberal Democrats complained that "there have been various projects and various consultations over the years on which all the main parties have given very similar views and we keep on each year, or each few months, being asked for our views again and giving the same views again and the process does not seem to move forward."[257] This in part refers to the Local Authority Secure Electoral Register (LASER) project, a forerunner of CORE, which was supposed to achieve the same kind of goals but which ran into the ground. As to the latest initiative, there seems now to be an impasse on agreeing the data standards to be applied in compiling the local registers. Blame for this delay was variously attributed to the Government and to the Electoral Commission by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and to "an inter-departmental quagmire at an official level" by the Labour party.[258]

114. Ministers implied that the hitch was the responsibility of the Electoral Commission, with the Minister for Regional and Local Government and Fire, ODPM, telling us that "we cannot act without a recommendation from [the Commission on data standards], so their involvement is absolutely critical. They do have other pressures on their time at the moment which have perhaps acted as a slight inhibitor."[259] Mr Raynsford also argued that CORE was in fact "making reasonably good progress": "we have carried out a fairly detailed consultation on the arrangements necessary to put in place the systems to ensure consistent gathering of information by local authority registration officers. We are now moving towards the second phase of the project which will be concerned with data standards".[260] The Government intend that that phase should be completed in time for the October 2005 canvass so that "we will have the basis for a single national compatible register drawn from all the individual local registers by early in 2006."[261] This has slipped a year from the original proposal of using 2004 data.[262]

115. We have a number of concerns about the CORE project. First, we are not impressed by the progress made so far and by the delays in the timetable, nor by the shifting of the blame on this issue. Action must be taken by the ODPM as owners of this project to ensure that no further deadlines are missed and that the project reaches fruition. We recommend that the ODPM work to an absolute target of being in a position to use the 2005 canvass as the basis for a national register through the CORE project and that it publish a timetable with milestones for the completion of the CORE project.

116. Secondly, we are concerned that the ODPM has yet to consult the Information Commissioner on the data protection implications of the project. The Deputy Information Commissioner told us that "we normally expect government departments to consult us" on projects such as this.[263] The Minister for Regional and Local Government and Fire, ODPM, asserted that the Government had "every intention of consulting the Information Commissioner on the second stage [of CORE], which is about access to information, where the issues to do with data protection arise" but had not thought it necessary to do so when consulting on "technical issues to do with the software systems and the language".[264] We believe that when embarking on a £12 million project of this sort it is vital to take advice on the principle at the outset. We recommend that the ODPM consult the Information Commissioner without delay on the likely data protection issues of the CORE project so that his views can be accommodated in its design.

117. Thirdly, there is room to doubt the efficiency of the project management. We received warnings from the UK Computing Research Committee about the importance of project definition and the problems often encountered in building electronic systems.[265] The CORE project is dealing with highly sensitive data and is expected to play an important role in a process which demands public confidence. It cannot be allowed to go wrong. The Electoral Commission called in its evidence for the Government to "make clear its view of the relationship between the CORE project and other projects" connected with the modernisation agenda.[266] Since this is one of the purposes behind the CORE project, we are concerned that the Electoral Commission sees this need for further clarity and anxious that it should be provided by the Government in order that the project definition of CORE is established now rather than midway through the project. We recommend that the Government set out without delay the relationship between the CORE project and the other projects which form part of the electoral modernisation agenda and that the project definition of CORE be adjusted accordingly.

118. We recognise that the introduction of individual registration may have to await the completion of the CORE project in order for it to be implemented smoothly. There may therefore be an argument that decisions about the whole question of individual registration should be delayed until it is certain that CORE is going to deliver the necessary support structure. Nevertheless, it is also clear that work and time may be wasted if the project is carried out on the basis of a national household register only and decisions are later taken to change to some form of individual registration. While the date for the possible introduction of individual registration may depend upon the successful realisation of a national register, care should be taken to ensure that the system could accommodate the demands of individual registration, and the opportunities it brings, with minimum modification and disruption.

243   Ev 4, para 38, HC243-II [DCA/ODPM] Back

244   Ev 4-5, para 39 , HC243-II [DCA/ODPM] Back

245   Ev 5, paras 39-40, HC243-II [DCA/ODPM] Back

246   Q116 [Mr Watt] Back

247   Ev 16, para 12.2-3 , HC243-II [Electoral Commission]  Back

248   Ev 17, para 12.4 , HC243-II [Electoral Commission] Back

249   Ev 36, para (h) , HC243-II [Southampton City Council Liberal Democrat Group and Southampton City Council Labour Group] Back

250   Ev 76, para 14, HC243-II [Centre for Digital Security, Privacy and Trust at St Andrew's University] Back

251  Ev 34 [Association of Electoral Administrators]; Ev 50, para 11 [LGA] HC243-II Back

252   Ev 32 , HC243-II [Association of Electoral Administrators] Back

253   Ev 65, para 19 , HC243-II [Conservative party] Back

254   Q229 [Mr Dumper] Back

255   Q58 [Mr Younger] Back

256  Q119 [Mr Simpson, Mr Pack] Back

257   Q139 [Mr Pack] Back

258   Qq138-9 [Mr Simpson, Mr Pack, Mr Watt] Back

259   Q340 [Mr Raynsford] Back

260   Q339 [Mr Raynsford] Back

261   Ibid Back

262   Ibid Back

263   Q87 [Mr Aldhouse] Back

264   Q346 [Mr Raynsford] Back

265   Ev 26-27, HC243-II [UK Computing Research Committee] Back

266   Ev 14, para 8.9 , HC243-II [Electoral Commission] Back

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