Previous Section Index Home Page

The amendment also provides for an order establishing the new corporation sole to be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and provides that before the order
13 July 2009 : Column 97
can be made, the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner must be consulted. Those requirements are designed to ensure that the order will be subject to a high degree of scrutiny. I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) is reassured by that. We have to retain flexibility, but the House will have ample opportunity to scrutinise any implementation of that flexibility.

I turn to the other amendments. CORE will create a new national database of electoral data, and therefore different security arrangements may be required. CORE will not make any new information available, nor will it supply electoral data to anyone not entitled to them. As the data it will hold will be available from a single point rather than through individual electoral registration officers, it will be easier to access the national data set.

The effect of provisions in the 2006 Act is that regulations governing access to, and supply of, the electoral register by electoral registration officers will also apply to the CORE keeper, subject to any modifications that the Secretary of State considers appropriate. That means that bodies currently entitled to receive copies of the electoral register and related information from electoral registration officers will be entitled to receive the same information from the CORE keeper, subject to the same restrictions on access and use. In the light of that, Lords amendment 34 supplements the Secretary of State's existing power to modify the application of the regulations by enabling additional or different protections to be imposed on the supply of material by the CORE keeper.

8.15 pm

Lords amendment 35 relates to section 3 of the Juries Act 1974, which requires electoral registration officers to supply copies of the register for the purpose of jury summoning. Once the CORE system is operational, it may be more efficient and convenient for the registers to be supplied on a national scale by the CORE keeper rather than by each individual electoral registration officer. Accordingly, the amendment creates a power to amend section 3 of the 1974 Act to provide for that, but it will not allow anyone who is not already entitled to access the register from electoral registration officers to do so from the CORE keeper.

Lords amendment 36 extends the Secretary of State's existing powers in relation to the CORE scheme order, so that it can authorise information sharing between the CORE keeper and the Electoral Commission. As I have detailed, the original intention was for the commission to be the CORE keeper. Now given that is not to be the case, however, it is important that the CORE keeper is able to furnish the commission with information that is relevant to its functions. It is envisaged that that power will enable the CORE keeper to provide the Electoral Commission with information on what checks have been made by political parties-for example, whether a particular person's entry was checked before a donation or loan was accepted from that person. CORE will also provide statistical information to support electoral registration officer performance standards, such as registration changes year on year. The power may also be used to enable the CORE keeper to inform the commission if an electoral registration officer has failed to report back to the CORE keeper on steps taken to investigate potential instances of fraud or other improprieties, as may be required in the CORE scheme order.

13 July 2009 : Column 98

I turn to Lords amendments 37 to 50, 96 to 98, 105 and 106, on individual registration. On 2 March, this House spent a considerable period discussing some of the general principles of that most important subject. In these amendments, the Government have set out their approach to the implementation of individual registration in Great Britain. It is an historic shift with a carefully phased timetable, designed to bolster and support both the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the electoral register. I believe that in our previous discussions, there has been agreement throughout the House about how important both those principles are.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I intervene merely to reassure the Minister that we have agreement on those matters.

Mr. Wills: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, and I look forward to her support for the amendments as a result.

It is important that we take a phased approach, alongside extensive work to increase registration rates. That will enable us to uphold the integrity of our electoral registration processes as we prepare both the public and the system for this fundamental and historic change. It is vital that we put integrity at the heart of everything we do. Electoral registration is the gateway to democratic participation and without effective registration processes, individuals are denied the right to participate and democracy is undermined.

We all know that the system is not perfect in that respect. On the best estimates, about 3 million or 3.5 million people are eligible to vote but are not on the register, and are therefore denied the right to exercise their vote. That damages our democracy, and we can be satisfied only when every eligible person is on the register. We need to do more to ensure that that is the case and that the historic shift to individual registration does not further damage the integrity of the register in that respect. I will say a little more about how we intend to do that.

Before I discuss in more detail the amendments that were tabled in another place, I would like briefly to talk about the benefits that individual registration will offer. The first is enhanced integrity. All the evidence shows that electoral fraud is not considered a major problem in this country, but there is never room for complacency about fraud. We have taken steps to reduce the risk of fraud under the Electoral Administration Act 2006-for example, by introducing a new offence of providing false information to an electoral registration officer when registering to vote. However, any amount of fraud is unacceptable, and the perception of fraud is equally dangerous. It undermines confidence in our democracy and the perceived legitimacy of our democratic processes. We must take steps to ensure that the registration system is as robust as possible in enabling us to detect and prevent electoral fraud.

For that reason, a system of individual registration offers added security because it requires electors to provide identifying information to register to vote. It enables the system to verify entries against a third-party database and makes it more difficult to fabricate registration. Individual registration is an important step towards strengthening the integrity-and the perception of the integrity-of the electoral process.

13 July 2009 : Column 99

Furthermore, individual registration has the potential to strengthen all citizens' engagement in the democratic process by giving them responsibility for their registration. It replaces an outdated household registration system, whereby one member of the household takes responsibility for registering all the others. That is antiquated and belongs to a different system of suffrage. We need a system that better reflects people's circumstances today.

Introducing individual registration is the most significant change in electoral administration for many years. It is the right thing to do, and it will bolster the security and accuracy of our registration. However, it will make registering to vote more complex for individuals, who will be required to provide additional identifying information to register to vote. We must recognise that some people will experience considerable difficulty in doing that. For example, we know that one in five adults are functionally illiterate. The Government are addressing that vigorously, but it is none the less a fact of which we must take account when we consider how to move to the new system of electoral registration.

We have given careful consideration to the potential impact of the new requirement on the comprehensiveness of the register. The phased approach that we propose is designed to enable us to secure the benefits of enhanced accuracy and security, without damaging the comprehensiveness of the register.

What will the amendments do? Our approach to individual registration is to move in two phases: a voluntary phase and a compulsory phase. During the voluntary phase, it will be compulsory for electoral registration officers to ask individuals to provide the relevant identifying information-national insurance number, date of birth and signature-but individuals will not be required to do that to be on the register.

The voluntary phase will prepare the public for the changes ahead, in particular the new requirement to provide identifying information for the purposes of registration. It will allow electoral administrators to develop the processes and systems for collecting and storing the identifying information. During the voluntary phase, the Electoral Commission will be asked to draft annual progress reports on how the voluntary system is working; the overall health of the registration system, and whether any changes would be needed, were the collection of identifying information to be taken forward on a compulsory basis. That will provide us with invaluable information for our understanding of the effectiveness of the registration system and its readiness for the shift to individual registration.

The voluntary phase will not commence before July 2010-in other words, it will not become entangled with the next general election, whenever that may be-and will not finish before 2014. That period will enable us to be fully confident that the system is ready before we move to the compulsory phase, when it will be obligatory for individuals to provide identifying information to electoral registration officers to be included on the register. It will enable us to prepare the public for the change, and to take steps to bolster registration rates in the meantime. That will be fundamental to protecting the system against the risk of a drop in the numbers registered.

13 July 2009 : Column 100

Mrs. Laing: I understand the Minister's point about 2014 and the amount of work that has to be done, but if matters happen to move more quickly than he anticipates, will the Government take steps to bring forward the date for full introduction to, for example, 2013 or 2012, if that is possible and practical?

Mr. Wills: It would be a rash politician who ever said "never", but when the hon. Lady has heard the rest of my remarks, I think she will agree that rushing the matter in the way she suggests would be unwise and risk tarnishing our whole electoral system. I will go through the details shortly, but I ask her to bear it in mind that we already have 3 million people who are eligible to vote but are not on the register. That represents a huge challenge to registration, which we must tackle. Some measures are already in train-we are doing everything we can to tackle the problem, and then move to a system of individual registration. As she will hear, that will create genuine problems and challenges to the registration system over and above the existing ones. To rush the matter and take the risk of even more people falling off the register as a result of undue haste would be unwise and damage the integrity, and the perception of the integrity, of the entire system. When she has heard what else I have to say, she may agree that it would be most unwise to proceed before 2014.

Mrs. Laing: I do not disagree with the Minister. I understand his point and I simply wish to reassure him and the House that we also have the integrity of the register and its comprehensiveness as a top priority and would not wish to rush through any scheme in a way that might harm that integrity or, indeed, the perception of integrity.

Mr. Wills: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her constructive approach.

I shall now deal with the detail of the amendments. The new clause, which Lords amendment 37 would introduce, provides for the voluntary collection of personal identifiers-date of birth, signature and national insurance number-from electors alongside the existing process of household registration. It would make it obligatory for electoral registration officers to take steps to obtain that information from 1 July 2010, and it would set a minimum level for those steps.

The new clause that Lords amendment 38 would introduce contains a power to make regulations to help enable the voluntary provision of identifying information to take place. The power to make regulations would include, by virtue of proposed subsection (1)(a) and (b), a power to amend the identifiers to be collected during the voluntary phase. That might become necessary if, for example, technological advances required a different type of identifying information to be used. That power would be subject to affirmative resolution, and the Electoral Commission would have to be consulted before it was used. It is potentially a significant power and that is why we believe that it is important to exercise such a high level of scrutiny before it is deployed.

David Howarth: I am slightly concerned about the order-making power's breadth. To give a specific example, will the Minister confirm that, in line with what the Home Secretary said a few days ago, the Government have no intention of using the power to make identity cards part of the system?

13 July 2009 : Column 101

Mr. Wills: As I said, our view is that the identifiers should be a national insurance number, a signature and date of birth. We believe that that is appropriate, but things change and it is important for the Government of the day to have a power to respond to, for example, technological changes. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman enough reassurance to support the Government on the amendments.

As I have said, the power to make regulations is potentially significant. Therefore, we have taken particular care to have regard to the comprehensiveness of the register and the effect that any change in the identifiers might have on it. Our view is that there are considerable challenges and we do not want to make them worse. Therefore, in consulting the commission, the Secretary of State must seek its view on the impact on the register of changes to identifiers in the event of the provision of identifiers becoming compulsory. That is intended to act as a safeguard, ensuring that any amendments to the identifying information provided would not have a negative impact on groups that are already under-represented.

The new clause introduced by Lords amendment 38 would also provide a power to make consequential amendments to the provision inserted by Lords amendment 37. In addition, subsection (1)(c) of the new clause provides for regulations to make supplementary provision to enable the collection of identifiers on a voluntary basis. The specific matters that can be included in regulations made under that power are listed in subsection (2) of the new clause. Subsection (2) would provide for the Secretary of State to make provision for the kinds of forms that could be used to collect identifiers, what those forms should say, how they should be kept and how data held by the authority responsible for the national insurance number database could be shared with electoral registration officers or the CORE keeper, as well as the charging of fees for the provision of data. The new clause introduced by Lords amendment 38 would make it an offence for an electoral registration officer to share information other than for specified purposes.

8.30 pm

In addition, the new clause introduced by Lords amendment 38 would allow us to make provision for what steps an electoral registration officer should take if he or she suspected that the identifying information provided was false. That is important in enabling the system to tackle fraud. Although the intention is that no one will be removed from the register in that phase for failing to provide identifiers or providing inaccurate identifiers, we will take powers to set out in regulations the steps that electoral registration officers must take in the event of false or inaccurate identifier information being provided.

The first set of regulations made under those powers will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, as will any subsequent regulations that amend the preceding clause, which sets out the obligation for electoral registration officers to collect personal identifiers on a voluntary basis. Subsequent regulations that do not amend the provision relating to the voluntary collection of identifiers and seek only to make supplementary provisions will be made under the negative resolution procedure. That is because we consider that such regulations will be technical-for instance, adjustments to forms, as we
13 July 2009 : Column 102
establish what works-and less likely to warrant a full parliamentary debate. Hon. Members will be aware that much legislation relating to registration is already made by order under the current system.

The Electoral Commission must be consulted before regulations can be made using those powers. In consulting the commission in respect of regulations that seek to change the personal identifiers, the Secretary of State must seek its view on whether any such amendments to the identifying information would have a negative impact on under-represented groups.

The new clause introduced by Lords amendment 39 would require the Electoral Commission to keep the voluntary phase under review and would provide for annual progress reports to be published by the Electoral Commission. It would also require the commission's report in 2014 to include a recommendation on whether the evidence supported a shift to the compulsory phase of individual registration. The reports must assess the progress of the voluntary phase against the tests set out in subsections (3) and (4) of the new clause introduced by Lords amendment 39. Which tests have to be applied will depend on the year in which the report is submitted.

Under subsection (3) of the new clause introduced by Lords amendment 39, each report, irrespective of when it is submitted, will contain an assessment of the adequacy of the registration system in meeting the registration objectives and an assessment of whether any changes are needed ahead of a shift to individual registration. That is essential if we are to build up a clear evidence base on the health of the registration system and its readiness to be subjected to such a significant change. In addition, it is important that those who represent hard-to-reach groups are given an adequate opportunity to contribute to the consideration relating to the move to individual registration. We would therefore expect the Electoral Commission to engage with such groups and organisations from the outset in considering the comprehensiveness and accuracy of the register and in making its recommendations.

In 2014, the commission's report will be different. In addition to the assessment that I have outlined, that report must contain an assessment as to whether making the provision of identifiers compulsory would help or hinder the achievement of the registration objectives and a recommendation as to whether the collection of identifying information should be made obligatory. It may help the House if I briefly clarify what the registration objectives are, as set out in subsections (8)(a) to (c) of the new clause introduced by Lords amendment 38:

Those objectives mirror the definitions already used to provide for individual registration in Northern Ireland and are designed to ensure that the register is both comprehensive and accurate.

Next Section Index Home Page