Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Wills: That is an important point. There are significant variations throughout the country, and some areas find it much more difficult than others to achieve satisfactory levels of registration. Places such as Cambridge may be relatively advantaged socially and economically,
2 Mar 2009 : Column 657
but may have other problems because of the massive churn of the population. Other areas may have difficulties caused by large numbers of people living in houses of multiple occupation. Every area has specific problems. What we cannot accept is that any of those problems constitute excuses for anything other than the utmost effort to ensure that the register is as full as possible.

We have taken important steps and they are beginning to pay dividends, but we can do more. We propose to take three further steps. Electoral registration officers in areas where there is one tier of local government can already gain access to data held by education departments and social services which help them to maintain and enhance their registers, but that is not the case in two-tier areas. We therefore intend to introduce secondary legislation under powers in the 2006 Act to enable EROs in areas with two tiers of local government to access data held by the higher tier, to help them to target individuals who are not registered and check the accuracy of their registers. That will help them to identify, for example, young people attaining the age at which they can vote and persons in care homes, all of whom have a right to vote but many of whom may not be registered.

We also want to ensure that electoral registration officers are fully aware of all the steps that they can take to improve the register. We intend to make clear in legislation that the section 9 duty imposed by the 2006 Act applies throughout the year, not just during the annual canvass period. We know that some officers conduct mini-canvasses outside the main annual canvass period to increase registration rates in areas where they are low. We want all EROs to undertake similar activities where necessary, and to do so throughout the year. That will challenge them, but it will assist them as well. It will challenge them to do more, but we believe that it will also assist them by clarifying what is expected of them.

Chris Ruane: As my right hon. Friend says, EROs currently have permission to consult databases in different local authority departments. That entitlement is taken up with gusto by some, and is not taken up at all by others. Given that any new powers that my right hon. Friend gives may not be taken up, what measures can he and his Department take to ensure that what powers are given are used?

7.45 pm

Mr. Wills: When we give powers we naturally expect them to be used, and we will monitor the position. That is the point of the performance standards. All of us—not just Government—will be able to see which EROs are doing well and which are not, in proportion to the funding that they receive. We will expect all of them to measure up to the standards of the best, and to strive to meet the 100 per cent. target. We may not achieve that, but it must always be a pressing obligation for us all. I shall say more about that in a moment. If my hon. Friend will bear with me, he will hear something that I hope will afford him some comfort.

We need to do more, which is why we tabled the data-matching clauses. In some areas, particularly those where the population is stable—not areas such as Cambridge—registration rates may have hit their peak, but in many other areas ensuring that people registered has always been, and is still proving to be, a significant
2 Mar 2009 : Column 658
challenge for electoral registration officers. We want to do more to assist officers in such circumstances, while not necessarily forcing them to act. The piloting of data-matching schemes that will allow them to receive relevant and restricted data from public authorities will allow us to test, in a controlled way, new tools to help them to maintain their registers.

The provision will allow the Secretary of State to make an order allowing a public authority, or a person appointed to discharge its functions, to supply an ERO with specified data at specified times for the sole purpose of electoral registration. The officer would use the data for the purpose of identifying persons who were entitled to be on the electoral register but were not currently registered, or inaccuracies in the register meaning that the officer would need to conduct a review of a registration. We have already discussed our proposals in outline with a number of public authorities, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, and they are content in principle with the possibility of sharing data to assist improvement of the electoral register. We are discussing with them in greater detail the practicalities of any such schemes.

Martin Linton: Since 25 November, many people renewing visas have been given identity cards containing their names and addresses. Some of those people are eligible to vote in this country. May I take it that they will be automatically included in the relevant electoral register?

Mr. Wills: No, not at present. We are proceeding carefully, in ways that I shall continue to outline. The question of the identifier is interesting, however, and I shall touch on it briefly in a few moments.

Bob Spink: I support the aim of new clause 21. However, subsection (7) deals with the disclosure of information to third parties by a registration officer, who, according to paragraph (b), can pass on information

In what circumstances would the officer provide such information pursuant to civil proceedings, what civil proceedings has the Minister in mind, and what protections would be provided?

Mr. Wills: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will outline the scheme and then describe the protections involved. Obviously they are important.

David Howarth: The Minister referred to the public bodies, or Government Departments, that had been consulted, and the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked about the specificity, or the particular consequence, of the order. Has the Minister consulted the Information Commissioner about the new clause, and if so, what did the commissioner say?

Mr. Wills: As I have just said, I will be dealing with the subject of the protections, but the direct answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is yes. Although I cannot speak for the Information Commissioner, he will forgive me for answering that question. His response was that he was content with the provisions, and I think that when I explain them, the hon. Gentleman will see why.

We have been very careful to hedge the provisions around with a lot of protections. As a lawyer, the hon. Gentleman will have noticed that I said specifically that
2 Mar 2009 : Column 659
bodies will be able to supply an electoral registration officer with specified data at specified times for the sole purpose of electoral registration. He will thus immediately have realised that makes the provisions consistent with data protection principles. He is looking at the new clause, but I can assure him that it was drafted on that basis.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD) rose—

Mr. Wills: If the intervention is about data protection principles, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient as I shall come to those when I have finished outlining the scheme. Everyone will then be a little wiser—although perhaps only a little.

As I have said, the data-matching schemes will operate on a pilot basis. The local authorities participating will be selected through an open and transparent process involving the Electoral Commission as well as the Ministry of Justice, and there will be a set of criteria for the electoral registration officers who participate. We intend to publish details of the process before the summer recess. I am keen to ensure that Members on both sides of the House have the opportunity to contribute to the design of the process, and I will consult the parties before that point. In doing so, as I hope it is recognised we have tried to do throughout the passage of the Bill, we shall seek consensus.

The clauses require the Electoral Commission to conduct a review of each pilot and publish a report on its findings. We believe that the pilots will help us all to understand what information would be useful to electoral registration officers in maintaining the accuracy and comprehensiveness of their registers. They will also identify which data-matching schemes would help to secure registration rates when we move to a system of individual registration in Great Britain.

We are absolutely clear that any data matching must be carefully controlled and scrutinised. What we are proposing is not new. Both the overall approach and the provisions are closely modelled on provisions that Parliament approved in 2006 for application in Northern Ireland. I shall spell out the safeguards that will apply.

The clauses themselves set out explicitly the purposes for which the data supplied must be used by an electoral registration officer. Only data relevant to electoral registration may be provided by the public authority.

The public authority providing an electoral registration officer with data would be consulted on the release of information, and proper safeguards would be put in place in each order to ensure compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998. Each order putting in place a data-matching scheme would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, giving the House the opportunity to determine whether it was acceptable to proceed.

Martin Horwood: I understand what the Minister is saying, but it seems to me that the provisions breach one of the data protection principles. The principle of fair processing—as I understand it—is that data should be processed only for the purpose for which they were supplied to the data processor. In supplying data for voter registration, another public authority such as the NHS or the Department for Work and Pensions would
2 Mar 2009 : Column 660
actually be using that data for a purpose for which they were not supplied. That represents a breach of the original data protection principles.

Mr. Wills: With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, the House will have an opportunity to look at each scheme on its merits in each case— [ Interruption. ] The rights are not unfettered; how such things are treated will be a matter of judgment.

Martin Horwood rose—

Mr. Wills: If the hon. Gentleman would bear with me for just one more minute, I shall give him some extra reassurance. We are anxious that it should not be the Government who make those judgments, but the House, properly advised about the application of the principles of data protection by the person Parliament appoints for that job—the Information Commissioner. We are providing that the Information Commissioner will be able to issue their own assessment of each order, in each case, which will be published. It will be made available to the House before the House votes on the order.

Mr. Hogg: That is very helpful, but we have to remember that the affirmative resolution is not amendable. Given that fact, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House should have an opportunity to debate affirmative resolutions in draft so that we can make our comments and the Government can decide whether they want to amend the final draft to reflect what the Information Commissioner has said?

Mr. Wills: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very helpful suggestion, and at the moment I think it is perfectly reasonable, although this is the first time I have heard it. If I may, I shall consider it further and if we need to make such an amendment we can do so in the other place. I cannot agree to it right now, but it is a helpful suggestion and unless I can find a good reason not to, I am perfectly disposed to do things in that way. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be comforted by the fact that if the House is uncomfortable with an order it can reject it.

Martin Horwood: The Minister is being very patient with me. I can see provision under the new clauses for a report by the Electoral Commission, but I can see no specific provision for a report by the Information Commissioner. Can the Minister draw our attention to the exact clause or subsection where that provision is made?

Mr. Wills: I am giving the hon. Gentleman the assurance in the House that that is what will happen— [ Laughter. ] Members are perfectly able to vote against the proposals, but we are trying to give them assurances and I hope they will reflect on what I am saying and bear in mind the safeguards that are in place. It is up to them what they decide to do.

Martin Horwood rose—

Mr. Wills: I have a considerable amount still to go through and I do not want to try the patience of the House unduly. We have other points to make and I am sure that Members will want to have their say on those matters too.

2 Mar 2009 : Column 661

We believe that the consultation will make sure that proper safeguards ensure that we do not act without taking into account privacy concerns or other concerns that might have an impact on the legitimacy of our electoral processes. These safeguards and protections go further than the Northern Ireland provisions we implemented, which I understand the House accepted. I am not sure what the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party was on those provisions but I do not remember the Liberal Democrats making much noise at that point. I hope he agrees that what is appropriate for Northern Ireland should be appropriate for Great Britain.

We are determined to do everything possible to ensure that the electoral register is as comprehensive as reasonably possible. The measures I am announcing today are the start of a drive to achieve just that. We will announce further measures to improve the register when we set out our broader strategic vision for electoral administration towards the end of June.

In connection with the switch to individual registration, we are asking the Electoral Commission to judge whether and when the register is as comprehensive and accurate as possible. If at any time, the Electoral Commission judges that it or others need new powers to achieve those ends, the Government will start from the position that any such requests should be granted, assuming of course that the proposals are proportionate and necessary. I hope that Opposition parties will join the Government in responding similarly to such requests.

I turn to the historic shift to individual registration. The Government agree with the arguments for it: greater protection against electoral fraud, increased individual responsibility and enhanced legitimacy. The debate has not been about the ends, but about the means.

The shift to individual registration will be complex; it is a radical and unprecedented move in this country. It is a profound change—a recognition in the registration system of the shift that took place long ago from the household franchise to the individual. At every stage, we have to be sure that we are subjecting the reform to the proper degree of careful scrutiny. As the Electoral Commission said in its briefing paper for Report, individual registration, and I quote—

Mr. Heath: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wills: I shall be happy to give way when I have given the quote, but the hon. Gentleman should hear these words.

The Electoral Commission said that individual registration

David Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure that we have been given the right information on the grouping of the new clauses and amendments. The Minister seems to have moved on to new clauses 14 to 16 and 25, which, according to my piece of paper, are in a different group from new clauses 21 and 22.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have every confidence in Mr. Speaker’s selection, and I have not heard anything that causes me to worry about the Minister’s interpretation of it, but I shall continue to listen to the Minister.

2 Mar 2009 : Column 662
8 pm

Mr. Wills: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and of course you are right, as always. [Interruption.] I know that the hon. Members for Cambridge (David Howarth) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) are desperate to make the points that they want to make on what they choose to hear. However, if they had listened carefully when I introduced new clauses 21 and 22, they would know that I said that if the House is to make a proper assessment of the new clauses, it has to understand the context in which we are introducing them. I have, I hope, been setting out that context for quite a long time, and I have given way many times to the hon. Gentlemen. I have been trying to point out to them that if we are to move towards individual registration, which I think most people in the House agree is a most desirable objective, we must improve the electoral registration system. I am trying to explain that. That has nothing to do with the groupings, and when hon. Members see Hansard, they will see that I pointed that out right at the start of my remarks.

I will, if I may, repeat what the Electoral Commission said, because they are important words that the House needs to hear to reach a judgment. It said that individual registration

I stress

that is precisely what we are discussing.

We agree with the Electoral Commission’s analysis, and I have already outlined the steps that we have taken, and are taking, to enhance the reach of the register. We can have a register that is both comprehensive and accurate, but only if we frame the process in a way that prepares the public for the transition to a new form of registration and do all that is in our power to ensure that registration rates do not fall. If we fail to do that, we damage the legitimacy of the electoral process and our democracy.

The Government will propose amendments during the House of Lords stages of the Bill to put in place a statutory timetable for the introduction of individual registration, begin the roll-out of measures to prepare both the public and the electoral system for that change, and put in place a series of tests, which are to be independently assessed by the Electoral Commission, that will ensure that the shift is made only when the system is ready for it.

We will legislate to allow local authority electoral registration officers to collect personal identifiers—date of birth, signature and national insurance number—from electors. That will take place alongside the existing process of household registration. Provision of the identifiers would be voluntary. That process, which we are calling permissive individual registration, would begin during the autumn 2010 annual canvass.

Next Section Index Home Page