Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (VOT 01)

  1.  The Government welcomes this opportunity to submit a memorandum to the Committees on the issue of voter registration and looks forward to the Committees' report.

  2.  This memorandum has been produced jointly by the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It includes a statement of current Government policy on the issue of individual registration and addresses each of the other issues identified by the Committees.


The Electoral Commission's recommendation

  3.  Voter registration in England, Scotland and Wales is currently run as a combination of annual household registration and individual "rolling" registration. A person in each household is required to complete a form once a year listing all those eligible to vote at that address. In addition, individual "rolling" registration is available, mainly used by those who move house part way through the year.

  4.  The Electoral Commission has recommended that electoral registration should move to a system based entirely on individual registration. This change envisages that, once a year, an individual form would be used for each person in a household, making everyone responsible for their own registration and meaning that one individual in each household would no longer have this role. The "rolling" individual registration to take account of changes of address would continue.

  5.  The Commission further recommended that along with individual registration, new requirements for individual voter identifiers should be introduced, in addition to those that currently apply. These identifiers, the Commission suggested, should be a signature and date of birth. The Commission additionally suggested the use of a unique registration number for database management purposes.

  6.  The Commission argued that the effect of these changes would be a more accurate register and a firmer foundation on which to base remote voting methods.

The experience in Northern Ireland

  7.  Individual registration was introduced in Northern Ireland under the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002. The Act was intended to address the widespread perception of electoral fraud in Northern Ireland and has been widely judged as successful in achieving this. [1]

  8.  A consequence of the Act, however, has been a significant drop in levels of registration. Although some reduction in registration levels was expected as a result of increased accuracy, the entire drop cannot be attributed to this. The numbers of people registered to vote in Northern Ireland dropped from 1,192,136 entries on the August 2002 register (95.5% of the population identified by the census) to 1,072,425 entries following the December 2002 canvass (86% of the population). Although the number of people on the register increased over the year as rolling registration was utilised, the fall in numbers of voters registered remained at around 100,000 entries. At the following canvass, the total number of entries fell slightly further, to 1,069,160. [2]This drop in the number of people registered came despite the use of extensive advertising and outreach campaigns, in addition to door to door canvassing.

  9.  On 30 November 2004, John Spellar MP, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, made a statement to Parliament announcing that, in the light of a downward drift in registration rates, the Government intends to bring to an end the annual canvass in Northern Ireland. This will reduce the burden on individuals and allow resources to be better targeted towards those with the lowest levels of registration. As this will require primary legislation, in the meantime the "carry-forward" of electors' names, which allows people to remain on the register for one year if they do not return a canvass form and which was halted in 2002, will be reinstated. In this way, Government hopes to maintain the high levels of accuracy and confidence that the new system benefits from, whilst also ensuring registers are comprehensive.

The Government's position in the rest of the UK

  10.  The Government is sympathetic to the principles of individual registration and appreciates the benefits that it might bring to the rest of the UK, but is concerned about maintaining a simple and clear system and comprehensive registers.

  11.  The introduction of individual registration in Northern Ireland was a successful response to an issue specific to Northern Ireland. However, given the experience of a reduction in levels of registration, and while the work to reform Northern Ireland's registration system further to ensure that registers are complete as well as accurate is not concluded, the Government does not believe that it would be appropriate to introduce the system in place in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK at this time.

  12.  We are, however, considering any changes that may be necessary to ensure that future remote voting methods are made secure. The Electoral Commission had recommended that individual registration was a prerequisite for any future roll-out of remote voting methods, including all-postal voting or its proposed "foundation model".[3] We agree that as with all methods of voting, it is vital that remote voting mechanisms are secure and are seen to be so and, as such, we will continue to work with the Commission on the modernisation of voting methods and will consider any changes to the registration system that may be beneficial in achieving this.

(a)  Advantages of individual registration compared with the existing system of household registration

  13.  The Government recognises the potential benefits of individual registration, particularly in terms of supporting electoral modernisation, as seen in Northern Ireland and as set out by the Electoral Commission and in the ODPM Select Committee's report on postal voting.

  14.  However, the Government is also aware of the concerns of others, such as the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, whose recent report on individual registration in Northern Ireland stated that:

    The Electoral Commission recommended that individual registration as well as the abolition of the carry-forward mechanism should be extended to Great Britain. In view of the problems identified in this report, we strongly recommend that the Government follows this advice only once satisfactory strategies have been put in place in Northern Ireland for alleviating the problems of under-registration among particular population groups. [4]

  15.  As stated above, we are therefore engaged with the Commission and others in the process of looking at the various options available to support electoral modernisation and remote voting—including the Commission's "foundation model", which is currently in development—whilst ensuring that electoral registers are not only accurate, but also complete.

(b)  Strategies for encouraging registration, in particular among young voters, and tackling resistance to registration; and examination of the advantages and disadvantages of compulsory registration

  16.  Promoting participation in the electoral process, which includes electoral registration, was a function given to the Electoral Commission under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The Commission has been active in this area, conducting research, producing policy reports, providing voter education and running advertising campaigns. We await with particular interest research commenced by the Commission to assess the extent and nature of non-registration in Britain, expected in Summer 2005.

  17.  The Government has also been active in developing ways to encourage registration. For example, the Representation of the People Act (RPA) 2000 introduced a number of changes to voter registration procedures designed to make registration easier and more convenient as well as to improve the accuracy of the register.

  18.  The changes included the introduction of what is known as "rolling registration". Rolling registration enables people to register at any time of the year. Prior to this, electors were only able to register each autumn through the annual canvass. If a person missed this opportunity, they had to wait until the next year before they could register. Rolling registration has been particularly helpful for persons who move during the course of the year, such as students, who may now apply to register at their new address as soon as they take up residence there. Rolling registration makes it easier for individuals to register to vote and to participate in elections in their new location, and for electoral registration officers to achieve more accurate and up to date registers.

  19.  The changes made by the RPA 2000 also, for the first time, enabled persons without a permanent address to register to vote by making a declaration of local connection. In this way, homeless people can now register to vote. There are also provisions enabling registration by voluntary patients in mental hospitals and prisoners on remand.

  20.  The Government is also currently engaged in a project aimed at gaining a greater understanding of the attitudes and motivations of the electorate in order to develop effective policies to encourage engagement and participation. The project involves research into understanding why certain groups of people, particularly those who are currently least likely to register or vote such as young people and some BMEs, may fail to register to vote, and is aimed at generating possible solutions. We expect the results to be available later this year.

  21.  On the issue of compulsory registration, it should be noted that it is already an offence to fail to supply information to a registration officer when requested. This includes requests for information on an annual canvass form, and is provided for under regulation 23 of the Representation of the People (England and Wales) Regulations 2001. The offence is punishable by a fine of up to £1,000. The result is that registration is, in effect, compulsory at the time of a canvass.

(c)  Issues of geographic and ethnic variations in levels of voter registration

  22.  The Government is aware of some evidence—such as that contained in the Electoral Commission's report on the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002—that suggests geographic and ethnic variations in levels of voter registration. It is envisaged that the two pieces of research discussed in the previous section will provide additional evidence on this issue, as well as suggesting possible solutions where registration levels are low.

(d)   Advantages or disadvantages of electronic rather than paper-based registration systems

  23.  Voter registration has traditionally been a paper-based system. However, over the last three or so years, an increasing number of local authorities have begun to allow households which wish to report "no change" to the information given during the previous annual canvass to do this via automated telephone systems or through the Internet. The local authorities involved in this report that up to one third of households now choose to respond by these methods. They also report positive elector feedback and state that the new systems cut down considerably on the administration involved in running the annual canvass.

  24.  For those electors wishing to make use of "rolling registration" arrangements, the Electoral Commission's website provides a form which can be completed online but which must then be printed, signed and posted to the local elections office. This system allows voter registration information to be provided at a central point and is useful in facilitating registration where an individual has moved. Many local authorities offer a similar service at a local level.

  25.  In The Electoral Registration Process, the Electoral Commission recommended that online and telephone registration should be extended to accommodate full, online changes of details and address, once individual registration had been implemented. The Government shares this goal, but, in the absence of a system that gathers unique voter identifiers, believes that it is more difficult to extend these forms of registration while maintaining a proper balance between increased convenience and a high level of security.

  26.  We will continue to take these issues forward through an existing working group made up of electoral administrators and officials from Government and the Electoral Commission. As part of this process we will also continue to consult groups representing people with disabilities, for whom online and telephone registration systems may prove particularly beneficial.

(e)  Difficulties for the disabled and others unable to complete forms

  27.  As with all aspects of the electoral system, the Government is keen to ensure that voter registration is as accessible as possible and notes the work done by the Commission in this area, particularly through their issuing of best practice guidance.

  28.  In considering changes to the registration system, the Government has invited several organisations to comment, including SCOPE, SENSE and the RNIB. It is the Government's intention to continue to involve such groups in all aspects of electoral modernisation.

(f)   Availability and confidentiality of the register

  29.  The electoral register has since its introduction in the nineteenth century been a public document. A public register of electors is an important safeguard against the potential for abuse of the electoral system. The primary purpose behind its public accessibility is to allow members of the public and political parties to check the register to ensure that all eligible names have been included, and that names of ineligible people have not.

  30.  Formerly, the register could be made available for a variety of other purposes. However, the Representation of the People (England and Wales)(Amendment) Regulations 2002, [5]amended the existing Regulations[6] that deal with registration ("the amended 2001 Regulations"), and tightened up access to the register by establishing a new framework governing access to, and supply and sale of electoral registers. The 2002 Regulations addressed privacy and security concerns expressed by the public arising from the possible misuse of data on the electoral register, and took into account the ramifications of the case of R v Wakefield Metropolitan District Council ex parte Robertson[7] ("Robertson").

  31.  As a result of the amended 2001 Regulations, each registration officer now keeps two versions of the electoral register: a full version and an edited version. The full register contains details of all registered electors. It is available for inspection by members of the public, under supervision. It may be sold and supplied to certain specified persons and organisations for specified purposes: to political parties, MPs, certain office holders and candidates for electoral purposes; to law enforcement agencies and government departments for the prevention and detection of crime, and criminal law enforcement purposes; to credit reference agencies for checking a person's identity when they apply for credit and the prevention of money laundering fraud; and to certain other bodies, eg the British Library and the Office for National Statistics for specified purposes.

  32.  Members of the public may choose to have their details omitted from the edited register, which is available for sale to anyone for any purpose.

  33.  The amended 2001 Regulations secure compliance with data protection and human rights law. There have been two court cases concerning the operation and interpretation of these amended Regulations, [8]and in each case the Court has upheld them and found them to be compliant with data protection and human rights legislation.

  34.  The new framework governing access to and supply of electoral registers has now been in operation for over two years. The Government proposes to consult in the near future on a limited package of proposed changes to address particular issues that have arisen following the bringing into force of the amended 2001 Regulations. For example, it is proposed to clarify that certain agencies and organisations, in addition to those already provided for, may have access to the full register for specified purposes, and to provide for storage of old electoral registers in public libraries and local authority archives offices.

  35.  The Government considers that the policy surrounding access to and supply of electoral registers—as embodied in the amended 2001 Regulations—is settled. The proposed changes are therefore being brought forward within the framework established by those Regulations. They will address issues that have been raised following their introduction, and in some cases ensure that the Regulations achieve what it was originally intended they would achieve. They preserve the balance between individual privacy and rights of access by public authorities that was endorsed by the Robertson judgments.

  36.  Separate to this, the Government is moving forward with proposals for a system of "anonymous" registration in order to protect people whose appearance on the electoral register may be the source of a threat to their safety. The proposals follow an Electoral Commission recommendation and are supported by groups including Rights of Women, Network for Surviving Stalking and Victim Support. The proposals are being developed with recognition of the importance of the public nature of the electoral register, there will be stringent criteria and we expect the number of "anonymous" registrations to be very low

(g)  Basis for individual registration, eg address-based or on personal criteria such as NI number or birth date

  37. In considering our position on individual registration we have looked at the issues around the use of addresses, NI numbers and birth dates, and will continue to do so as part of our continuing work on the registration system.

(h)   The desirability of a national electoral register

  38.  The Electoral Commission's May 2003 report The Electoral Registration Process recommended that:

    (a)  "electoral registers should be universally electronically maintained according to mandatory national standards"; and

    (b)  "electoral registers should continue to be compiled and managed locally, but should form part of a national register." The Government broadly accepts these recommendations.

  39.  Electoral registration officers are free to choose which electoral registration software to use in discharging their functions. There are currently six main private sector companies that each supply the UK market with different software, plus around 20 electoral registration officers who use a bespoke "in-house" system. This variation can create obstacles to the efficient conduct of both "rolling registration" and e-voting pilot schemes: in both cases registration data is passed between electoral IT systems potentially provided by different software suppliers. Standardisation of the way data is held and transmitted by different software packages should help make those electoral processes more efficient.

  40.  Additionally, there are a number of "national" bodies who need to obtain copies of the electoral register from every electoral registration officer for the conduct of their commercial or statutory business. Examples include: The Electoral Commission; Government bodies (eg the Court Service); the Police; registered political parties; and registered credit reference agencies. Again, due to the local nature of electoral registration, these bodies are currently obliged to separately approach over 400 individual registration officers to obtain copies of their local register. Accordingly, whilst we accept that there should in future be access to locally compiled electoral registration data through a central point for authorised "national" users, we have not yet decided what precise form those arrangements should take (nor, indeed, whether there needs to be an actual database at the centre rather than a portal providing access to all the local data).

  41.  We are also investigating the extent to which other benefits to the electoral process might be realised through a system of national access. For example, whether the national access arrangements might also provide more efficient cross-referencing between registers, improving detection of erroneous duplication.

  42.  On 15 January 2004, the Government announced in the House of Commons the launch of the Co-ordinated Online Register of Electors (CORE) project to deliver the standardisation and national access referred to above. In the summer and autumn of 2004 we undertook a public consultation and we are continuing to work with stakeholders to move the project forward in tandem with the wider Electoral Modernisation Programme.

(i)   Means of ensuring the security of the register: PIN numbers, electoral voting cards, signatures

  43.  Electoral registration officers have a range of powers to help them compile and maintain accurate and secure registers. They include the power to seek more information from an elector and to remove persons from the register who do not meet the conditions for registration. It is an offence punishable by a fine of up to £1,000 to fail to comply with a request for information from an electoral registration officer, or to give false information. As stated above, the full electoral register is also open to public inspection, under supervision, which means that it can be checked to make sure that only eligible persons are on it.

  44.  Electoral registration officers also have the power to inspect records kept by the local council which appointed them, and those kept by a registrar of births, deaths and marriages to enable them to maintain accurate details on the register. This means that where, for example, an electoral registration officer suspects that a person should be registered but he has not received a canvass form, he can confirm that person's residence by reference to other data.

  45.  For the future, as stated above, we are currently considering the various options available for utilising the registration system to underpin our programme of electoral modernisation. In approaching this issue, the Government believes that all methods of voting must be secure and seen to be secure, but recognises also that levels of electoral fraud are widely considered to be very low and that there is a balance to be struck between security and accessibility.

1   See the Electoral Commission report: The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002: An assessment of its first year in operation. Back

2   Source: the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland. Back

3   The Electoral Commission Delivering Democracy?, p 72. Back

4   Northern Ireland Affairs Committee: Electoral Registration in Northern Ireland, para 82. Back

5   S.I. 2002/1971. Back

6   The Representation of the People (England & Wales) Regulations 2001, S.I. 2001/341. Back

7   R v Wakefield Metropolitan District Council ex parte Robertson [2002] QB 1052 "(Robertson No 1)". Back

8   I-CD Publishing Ltd v Secretary of State [2003] EWHC 1761, The Times, 11 August 2003 and R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Robertson [2003] EWHC 1760 "(Robertson No 2)". Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 25 January 2005