Individual Electoral Registration and Electoral Administration - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Examination of Witness (Questions 219-287)

Q219 Chair: Mark, we are talking this morning about electoral registration and electoral administration. No doubt there may be colleagues who want to throw in some other stuff, they have not indicated that they will but I do mention it just in case.

Mark Harper: Absolutely fine.

Q220 Chair: You are very welcome, Mark. Would you like to make an opening statement and bring up to date those of us who unfortunately were not able to be at DPM's Questions yesterday? I understand there are one or two possible interesting developments. Welcome, Mark.

Mark Harper: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I will just make a brief statement, if I may, and this touches on a couple of the issues that did come up at the Deputy Prime Minister's Questions on Tuesday. I think it is worth saying the Government is very clear, and I made it very clear when I did the oral statement last September, that we are as focused on completeness of the register as we are on accuracy, and that remains the case.

It is also worth saying that the move to individual registration was supported by all the parties in the last Parliament, was in everybody's manifesto, and indeed, I think I am right in saying, looking at a summary of the evidence you have had, that all of the witnesses you have had support the move to individual registration. Obviously one or two of them have some concerns about some of the specific proposals and the detail, but they are all broadly in support of the process.

It is also worth saying that we were not convinced, when we came to office, that the way it had been enacted by the last Parliament and the last Government, of having a parallel running voluntary process first, was very sensible. We thought that would have led to a lot of confusion. It also had a very significant cost, so, by speeding it up, we think it will be clearer and easier to communicate to people what we are doing, and it does save a significant sum of money, about £74 million.

I will just say a couple of things about the issues that I know will come up. Members of the Committee can probe them in more detail. We absolutely take issue with some of the reporting around the idea that a significant number of people will drop off the register as a result of the move to individual registration. That view fails to take into account the lessons that we have learned from the process in Northern Ireland, and I think the witness you had from the Northern Ireland Electoral Office made the point that one of the key features that we have proposed in our White Paper is around the carry-forward in that first year, to take account of the people that don't register in the first year but that we keep on the register. They said that was critical. They didn't do that in Northern Ireland because of the extra focus they had there on accuracy and some of the problems with fraud, and that is one of the key lessons we have learned. We are also trialling, as you know, data-matching pilots to see the extent to which using some of those other public authority databases can be successful in identifying people who are not registered.

The final area is that we are looking at two different things. One is new methods of registering, so we are looking at online methods. As you know, people can currently, in many local authorities, confirm existing registrations online or by phone or by text, but you cannot do a new registration. For some of the groups who are not registered, particularly young people, if there is a secure online method of new registrations, that may well be particularly helpful.

The other area is to look at other transactions that people do with government. For example, applications for driving licences or passports could be accompanied with an ability to indicate that you want to register to vote, and could be the trigger for you receiving that invitation to register. We are working through some of those proposals with colleagues in other government departments.

The final point, Mr Chairman, is that there were suggestions that we were not doing a canvass exercise in 2014 and there would not be door-to-door canvassing. That is not true. I will set out a little bit more how the canvass in 2014 will be modified in a way that we think will be more successful. Registration officers will also have, amongst all their other powers, an expectation that they will be doing door-to-door canvassing where people do not respond. I think that is all I will say, and I will leave it to the questions to draw out some of those things.

Q221 Chair: I have just a couple of quick things, Mark. You said you take issue with the reporting of the way the evidence was given to us. Do you take issue with any of the accuracy of the evidence from the Electoral Commission and from the Association of Electoral Administrators?

Mark Harper: The point worth making is the point that I think has been confused in some of the reporting, and indeed in some of the points raised at DPMQs. There are two different concerns that have been expressed. The concern that the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators raise was around the opt-out, so around the proposal that we had that somebody could indicate in a very straightforward manner, potentially by a tickbox or something, that they wanted to be left alone for that particular annual cycle, and they felt that that made it too easy to not be part of the process. The Deputy Prime Minister indicated on Tuesday that he had some sympathy for those concerns and that we would look at those and change those provisions when we bring forward the final legislation.

The other area that people have tended to mush together and pretend it is the same thing is this issue around the penalties for not responding to the invitation to canvass, and that is an area where the Electoral Commission has not expressed concern. Indeed, they have been quite supportive of the idea that the move to individual registration is about making people take responsibility for getting registered, and that will be part of the theme of the communication activities that both they and we do in the run-up to the change in 2014. It is worth saying there are two different things there. I am sure members of the Committee will want to probe me on both of them, but they are two distinct things and they should not be muddled up.

Q222 Chair: But as the Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators make clear, were there to be no changes to what people assumed was in the White Paper, there would be very significant drops in the number of people on the register. You do not take issue with that, but you do say that there was a misinterpretation and now there has been an amendment and movement, and on both the key issues of the canvass in 2014 and on the tickbox, "Leave me alone", there has been some substantial and helpful movement forward.

Mark Harper: On the canvass, all of the things that I just set out that will be going on are already in the White Paper. Some people have assumed that there is not going to be any process of contacting electors in 2014 at all, which is not the case. It is one of the most costly bits of the process. It is the opt-out. The Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that there are concerns around that and that we will respond to those.

On the issue of what the Electoral Commission said, they made it very clear that that was an absolute worst-case scenario that they were talking about. There is no evidence to support that. They were just flagging it up as a concern. It is perfectly right for them to flag it up as a concern. It is worth saying, and they acknowledge this, that the move to individual registration is going to be a challenge in any event, because you are moving from a system where you have one person in the household taking responsibility for registration, and you are going to be getting everybody to have to do it, but everybody believes it is the right thing to do. It is what most countries do, and the Electoral Commission themselves welcome that move and welcome the ability to have that engagement with individual electors to have them take more responsibility. But it will be challenging, and that is why we all need to work together to make sure we get the proposals right, the implementation right and we do the communication to voters right to make sure that they are clear about what they need to do to be registered to vote, and then hopefully to exercise that vote in due course.

Q223 Chair: I think you can expect Members just to challenge and clarify both the tickbox issue and the 2014 level of canvass as we proceed this morning.

I have a final, technical one. Does the consultation on the White Paper close tomorrow?

Mark Harper: Yes.

Q224 Chair: Given that this has come to public prominence in the very recent past—it has been around for a while but, nonetheless, it has hit the papers in the last few weeks—presumably, Mark, if people do not quite make it by Friday and they get their representations in relatively soon thereafter, you would be open to receive those representations.

Mark Harper: I am not quite sure what the usual process is for tail-end ones, but if they get in in the period we are still looking at, certainly we will try to be as exclusive as possible. Certainly, in terms of the main stakeholder organisations, the Electoral Commission, the AEA, your Committee and a lot of those who work with, particularly, the groups that are under-registered at the moment, I know they either have or will by tomorrow already have submitted their evidence, so I think we will have a good spread of evidence from people who are involved in this on the ground, as it were.

Q225 Chair: Just to put it on the record, I think, as things appear to be moving, the Committee had a number of anxieties. I am not sure that people may feel that they are all allayed, but nonetheless there has been some very helpful movement quite recently at DPM's Questions, so I think I would be keen that, if there is that spirit of openness, we keep the door open just a little longer so that we get this just right now, rather than have to have you back when the legislation comes through.

Mark Harper: Sure. I think it worth saying, just as a final point, Mr Chairman, that both you and I and other Members in the House criticised two of our previous pieces of legislation for not having pre-legislative scrutiny. These are proposals. This is a draft Bill. We are doing this process of both public consultation and pre-legislative scrutiny, and we will look very carefully at your report, when you give it to us, and the other evidence that you have taken and that we have received directly, and we will see if we need to make changes to our proposals, and then we have the start of the long, normal parliamentary process, where we can engage in these debates as well. We are very open to listening to people's concerns.

Chair: Excellent. That is the value of pre-legislative scrutiny, and long may it continue.

Q226 Tristram Hunt: Minister, it is very good to know that there is a change in mood on the opt-out, and I think we, as a Committee, are very interested in that. I just want to focus on this notion that does not seem to have changed, which is the move in broad terms from civic duty to individual responsibility for registering to vote. In paragraph 64 of the proposal, it says, "While we strongly encourage people to register to vote, the Government believes the act is one of personal choice and, as such, there should be no compulsion placed on an individual to make an application to register to vote". I know this Government is very keen on nudging as a psychological tool of policymaking. Aren't you effectively nudging people not to vote?

Mark Harper: There are a couple of things there, and I think this is worth spending some time on, Mr Hunt. There is a difference between something being a civic responsibility or civic duty, which the Government believes that both registering and voting are, and making not doing it a criminal offence with a significant penalty, because that is what it is: the penalty for not sending back the household form is a criminal offence and you can be prosecuted in a magistrates' court. The Government very much believes that registering to vote is a civic duty and something that people ought to do, and we will look—

Q227 Tristram Hunt: Is that language in the—

Mark Harper: I was just going to say, one of the concerns that people have raised with us is about whether the tenor of what we have said and the opt-out, the combination of that, effectively the usual language around nudging, tips the balance so that people just think, "Oh, it is not very important," so we will look at the language that we use around that sense that people have that it is something they ought to do. It is worth saying that most people—83% in the survey the Electoral Commission did after last year's general election—do not know that you have to send the household canvass form back by law in any event, and there is a huge amount of confusion among the public about how registration works and what is and is not automatic, so there is quite a lot of good public education that both the Government and the Commission can do on this. We will look at that and we will look at the concerns people express, but my understanding of the logic behind the household form is that if you do not send the household inquiry form back, which is a responsibility for the head of the household—a rather antiquated concept now—you are potentially disenfranchising, under our existing system, other people, and that is why we are keeping that penalty in place.

The question we then had was, do we extend that to someone who does not send back their invitation to register form, where the only disenfranchisement would be of themselves? The question we asked was, do we want that to become a criminal offence that you effectively prosecute someone, give them a criminal record and potentially give them a significant fine? We did not think that was appropriate, but we will look at the language and see if that does tilt the balance, and will look at whether expressing it differently toughens it up. We will look at it, but I don't think we want to change the fact that it is not a criminal offence.

The other thing I would say about the Government's approach to databases as well is that of course we have just passed a piece of legislation getting rid of the National Identity Register, which was a register that people would have had to put themselves on by pain of criminal offence, and we are not going to recreate one by the back door. We are very careful to emphasise that we are keeping local electoral registers. We are not turning this into some kind of cover national database, so we are very reluctant to go down that path.

Q228 Tristram Hunt: The evidence we have received from some of the electoral officers was quite clear that them being able to send a letter with red ink, saying, "You are subject to a £1,000 fine" and all sorts of other ramifications has an effect and gives them the authority and power to pursue this with slightly greater authority than they might have otherwise. They were genuinely worried by the cultural effect of them not, as it were, having that backstop power.

Mark Harper: I saw that evidence. If you look at the facts, though, the actual number of prosecutions is very small. It is also worth saying that if you look at the literature review that I have looked at, that Dr Wilks-Heeg put together, on which I know he gave some evidence to this Committee as well, the evidence on whether compulsion does or does not have an impact is pretty mixed. The fact is that there are very few prosecutions. On the only evidence that we have, there is a significant number of people who are not on existing electoral registers when there is a requirement to return the household form. The evidence from other countries is that it is not clear that it makes a significant difference, but we will look at that evidence and certainly take on board the point about whether the combination of the opt-out and the language nudges, to use your phrase, people in the wrong direction, because that is absolutely something we are not trying to create.

As a final point, indeed, if you look at the evidence, the biggest determinant of whether people register to vote is their sense that there is a civic duty to register and they want the opportunity to be able to vote to express their view about how their country or their locality is governed. I think we need to strengthen that. The evidence that you had from the groups that represent some of those who are less likely to register focused on the work we need to do with those groups to get them more engaged in the process. I do not think that potentially threatening to criminalise people is very good way of dealing with political disengagement and getting people more engaged in the political process. I think we need to be a little more innovative in how we go about doing that, and there is some work that we can do on that, and we are indeed working with those groups to see what approaches might be successful.

Q229 Tristram Hunt: Finally, it would just be good to know from the Minister that, with that, there is an appreciation within government of the broader civic consequences of failing to have your place on the electoral register in terms of jury duties and playing your part in civic society, and if, as the evidence suggests, we lose those marginal groups, poor groups, young groups, black and minority ethnic groups, that is going to have a major ramification, not only for politics and boundaries and all the rest of it, but more broadly for the civic functioning of juries and governance.

Mark Harper: I have two things on that. First of all, I think a number of witnesses you had flagged up the risk. I do not think there is any evidence. It is right that they flagged up that risk, right that you listened to that and right that we pay attention to it and think about our proposals when we bring them forward.

Some of those other civic functions are things that we can use to encourage people to get registered, notwithstanding the purist arguments there are that people have about the electoral register only being used for electoral registration. I know that sometimes administrators in the Electoral Commission are very clear about that. There is no evidence, for example, that people don't register in order to get out of things like jury service. There is no evidence that that happens at all. We will keep these things under review, and we do. It is right to flag the risk up, and we need to make sure, as we look at the implementation, the language, the communication and the work we do with our partners, that we focus on those areas. Indeed, when I get some questions later on the write-out in the canvass on 2014, part of why we designed it the way we have is to make sure that resources get focused on those least likely to be registered so that we can do a good job with them.

Q230 Chair: It is helpful, Mark, that you have mentioned the language. I think it is very important that the signals and the messages around the language are out there. That, hopefully, will be taken by lots of people. I don't think the Committee is desperate to have an increase in prosecutions. Probably the Committee is keen that there is encouragement in the way that the forms are drafted, and whether it is coloured in red or whatever, I don't think we are looking to criminalise people. We are encouraging people to register. If that can be taken into account in your rethinking of this, that will be extremely helpful.

Mark Harper: Okay.

Q231 Simon Hart: I have to go fairly soon, so forgive me if it does not appear as eloquent as I hope it appears. I think we all agree that it is the numbers who vote that are actually important, rather than the numbers who register. Picking up on previous comments about risk, do you have any evidence to suggest that the pace at which you are pursuing these proposals increases the chances of certain sectors of the electorate being disadvantaged? There have been some conflicting views in the press on this. I am just interested to hear your view on that.

Secondly, is there a financial cost of electoral fraud that these proposals are going to reduce? We have not seen or heard from anybody who has put a figure on what this actually costs the taxpayer. I don't know if you can help us with that as well.

Mark Harper: There is a fairly widespread concern about electoral fraud. If you look at the evidence in terms of the number of prosecutions and the number of cases that are proven, they are fairly low, but there is quite a significant concern about it. It is one of these areas where, when you get cases of electoral fraud, they get an awful lot of attention focused within Parliament as well, so they do generate a great deal of concern. I think all parties share that, hence the movement to individual registration in the first place.

Two things behind that are speeding up the change. The first one was that we thought that having a parallel running system where you would have the traditional method and you would try to get people to participate in individual registration on a voluntary basis actually had the potential to be more confusing and not lead to an either more secure or complete system than deciding that you are going to have one system and move to it more swiftly. There was a cost to that. Parallel running of those two systems was going to cost an extra £74 million, which is a non-trivial sum of money. What we have done in the balance that we have struck is recognised that what we did not want to do is move to it so fast, as they did in Northern Ireland, that you had a precipitate drop in the number registered, particularly ahead of the next general election, and that is why we have implemented the carry-forward option, so that if somebody is on the register in 2014 as registered in the traditional way but does not register individually, they will be on the register and they will be able to vote in 2015, but the balance that we struck was that they would not be able to cast an absent vote, where we think the risk of fraud is potentially higher. But they would still be on the register and they would still be able to vote. I think the evidence that you had from the representative from Northern Ireland said that that carry-forward proposal was quite a significant one and is a very good way of mitigating against people dropping off the register when they are eligible. We think that struck the right balance between completeness and our—

Q232 Simon Hart: So the suggestion that we received by way of evidence could, in the circumstances, be a 30% drop-off. Are you suggesting that that is exaggerated?

Mark Harper: We do not think that. The problem was that people gave what they call a worst-case scenario, and we do not think there is any evidence that supports that at all. I think I am right in saying that in Northern Ireland, when they moved quite quickly to an individual system, they experienced a 10% drop in the number on the register. The best educated guess they have is that about half of that was desired reduction. In other words, it was people who were on the register, who were either not real people or were not eligible to vote or were on there in some way fraudulently, and those were removed, and that was a desirable outcome. Indeed, we will get some of that in our registers, possibly because people are there because of fraud, but more likely they are there just because people have moved and the register has not been updated. The system will be more accurate. There will be some removal of people that is desired because they should not be there in the first place. In Northern Ireland, about half of that drop, they believe, were people who were eligible to vote, and who had dropped off the register because the system was more difficult. It is that group that, by doing a carry-forward, we are trying to make sure stay on the register, able to cast that vote in that 2015 general election. We think that strikes the right balance.

Q233 Chair: I would just say, Mark, it is an offence not to complete the form in Northern Ireland. Is that something that you wish to take forward?

Mark Harper: It is interesting, because we looked at that. That was introduced five years ago. They did make it an offence not to send back the form but, interestingly, because of the way they implemented it, they still had 10% of people, 5% of whom they think were eligible to vote, drop off the register. In a sense, you could argue, they chose to do a different thing, but it did not appear to be particularly successful in keeping up the rate of registration. Indeed, some of the things they now do—some of the data sets they use, some of the quite innovative approaches they use, which I know you questioned them on, for example, visiting higher education establishments and engaging with younger people—have actually proved to quite successful, and they have started to drive that rate of registration back up again. What we want to try to do is not have that drop in the first place so that we can work on driving up the rate of registration from a higher base.

There is one other thing. Just so that we can properly assess this, the only data we have at the moment about the rate of registration is ten years old. It is the work that the Electoral Commission did, which indicates the familiar figure, about 3.5 million people, might be missing from the register. That is not very good data. It is very old, and there is no evidence, no data at all, about how many names may be on electoral registers who should not be, either from inaccuracy or fraud. You will know that we are undertaking at the moment a piece of research on both completeness and accuracy to try to give us a very accurate baseline about how complete the current set of registers are and how much inaccuracy there is, so that you have a good starting point to measure. Existing registers will then repeat that exercise after the move to individual registration so that we can assess how successful it has been. I know you and the Committee are very keen on looking at post-legislative review, and we propose to do that so we can set out how successful this has been and particularly identify where there are things we then need to work on after that transition has taken place.

Q234 Chair: But it is possible that the numbers in Northern Ireland could have been worse, if there had not been that threat of possible sanction?

Mark Harper: It is possible, but there is no evidence to suggest that at all.

Q235 Fabian Hamilton: Minister, can I just pick up on a point you made in your opening remarks? You said that individual voter registration was the "right thing to do". Can I just ask you to expand on that? Why is it the "right thing to do"?

Mark Harper: A system that relies on the rather old-fashioned, patriarchal head-of-household approach, where you give the responsibility to one person in the household to deal with the registration to vote of everybody else in the household, frankly, is a bit out of date. There are some communities where it reinforces some cultural behaviour that can restrict the ability of some people to exercise their right to vote in our country, but also it is not how we go about doing things today. It is not the approach we adopt with other things. We expect individuals to engage with the State, and certainly the Electoral Commission and others have been very supportive of that move to an individual approach, engaging people individually and getting people to take personal responsibility for being registered for casting their vote.

Q236 Fabian Hamilton: Is it about personal individual responsibility, each individual taking responsibility for their own future, their own civic duty, as it were?

Mark Harper: Yes.

Q237 Fabian Hamilton: Can I just ask you, though, do you think there will be a differential impact on poorer individuals in households by introducing individual voter registration? Is there any evidence to suggest that the poorer the household or the individual, the few people will register? What evidence do we have from other countries?

Mark Harper: No, I don't think there is a great deal of evidence to support that at all. If I just think about it in a human being sort of way, I don't see any reason at all why somebody from a poorer household is less concerned about their ability to make decisions about the future of their country, their council or their local area than somebody with a higher income. I just do not follow the logic of that approach at all. It is true, if you look at the existing research that was done by the Commission, that there were groups of people who are currently less likely to be registered. Part of that is to do with the way we currently do the annual canvass. The single biggest reason in the research as to why people are not registered is because they have recently moved, and a lot of it is to do with housing tenure and how frequently people move and different types of occupation where, indeed, the household system does not work well, for example, in houses in multiple occupation, where the person who gets the form does not really have any sense of responsibility for anybody else. There are a lot of areas where an individual approach, where you are dealing with people individually, could well improve it, and registration officers will then have the tools to focus on those people who do not get registered. That is partly why we are looking at the data-matching pilots to see if you can identify people who are not registered, and we have certainly found in the pilot so far that they have generated people who the electoral registration officers didn't know about and were not registered. The bit we do not know yet is how many of those leads, if you like, people that they can then chase, will be converted to be registered, and secondly, how many will have been registered anyway, and finally, the resource required to do that, and whether that is the most efficient way of doing it or whether there will be other ways, and we need to look at that to assess the pilots properly.

Q238 Fabian Hamilton: You do not agree, then, with the Electoral Commission when it noted, in its report on the implementation of individual voter registration in Northern Ireland, that it would have an adverse effect on disadvantaged, marginalised and hard-to-reach groups? "Young people and students, people with learning difficulties and other forms of disability, and those living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and encountered specific problems with the new registration process." Do you think they are wrong in that assessment?

Mark Harper: Those groups are already the groups that are less likely to be registered. You asked me a specific question, which was, did I think that the introduction of individual registration was likely to lead to fewer of those people being registered? I said no, I didn't. What I do think is that there are people with whom, if we do not do anything, there may be a risk of that, and that is exactly why we are working with groups that work with those groups of people to work out what it is we need to do to make sure that they do get registered. For example, we are working with groups that represent people with particular disabilities to make sure that the way we implement this does not disadvantage them and makes sure that they do get registered. There is a risk, if we do not do it properly, that some of those groups may not be registered, but because we are actively engaging with groups that represent people themselves, we will make sure we implement it in a way that they are not disadvantaged. The short answer to your question is that there is a risk that those people might not be registered, but because of the steps that we are taking, both government and the Electoral Commission and administrators, we can make sure that risk is minimised and those people are registered. What will actually happen is that they are registered at least successfully as they are today. Hopefully, with some of the other things that I have talked about, we can do a better job at getting them registered.

Q239 Chair: Before you move on to your final point, Fabian, the evidence from the Electoral Commission and from the Association of Electoral Administrators was very clear about the impact on the register in future, and they talked about the possibility of a tentative 3% drop in a suburban area and up to 35% in poorer areas. This was not a reference to the sociology or demography of how people vote currently or whether they register currently, of which I think we all have experience in particular areas. This was about the future of registration. This was, in a sense, a speculation or a projection. I think the point they were making was that, unless we do something pretty serious here, this will have very strong adverse impacts, especially in poorer areas.

Mark Harper: They are right to flag up the potential risk, because, if there are groups that do not register as frequently under the existing system, clearly, you have to make sure that you design the system so that you make it as easy as possible for people to register. Indeed, one of the things I am very keen on is to make sure that registration officers still have lots of flexibility to do the registration process in the way they think fits their local circumstances. Just as a very brief example to illustrate this, in Tower Hamlets—I know Louise Stamp came to give evidence here—because they have such significant population movement, they do not mail out the form, wait to see what comes back and then go and do doorstep canvass. They do a 100% doorstep canvass, because in their area, that is the best way they judge to get a more successful response. What I want to do is make sure that the duties and the processes we put on registration officers lead to the right outcomes. That may mean that they have to do different things locally to suit the particular nature of their area. It is a very interesting thing. The Electoral Commission talks about consistency. What we want is consistency of outcome. That may mean differences in how you go about doing things to suit local circumstances, and I am very keen that we let registration officers have the ability to flex what they do to be most successful, depending on their particular local circumstances—

Q240 Chair: Sorry, Mark. If they wish to do it that way, will they have the resources to do it? Will there be a ring-fenced resource to enable those who wish to do a full, initial 100% canvass to do so?

Mark Harper: On the resourcing issue, one of the things that we are thinking about—and there are obviously pros and cons to doing this—is where the process is fully funded, and in the impact assessment we set out the cost of it and the fact that that is funded. Where there are tensions pulling in both directions is whether you ring-fence the funding, and the Government's general approach with local government funding is to try to get rid of the ring-fencing and give the ability to local authorities to determine where the priorities are. A number of electoral administrators are saying, "We want the money ring-fenced so we know we get it". There are obviously countervailing pressures to that. The fact is that often the person in charge of electoral registration and then subsequent running of elections is the chief executive or a very senior member of the authority and in a good position to make sure the money goes where it is needed, so we are thinking about that. We are talking to colleagues within government. We want to do what will be most effective at making sure the resources we have fully fund this process and get to the people doing the job on the ground.

Q241 Chair: Perhaps rather unsurprisingly within my party, I have the unpopular position that I would like to see as much ring-fencing removed as possible. However, in this circumstance, when there is a very strong change, which will not happen again, hopefully, and there is a move from one system to another, this would be one of those instances where there would be some very strong arguments for ring-fencing, particularly given the concern expressed by Parliament on this matter.

Mark Harper: That is the thing we are thinking about. Given that this is, if you like, a one-off project and we are moving from one thing to the other, there is a case for saying that because you are doing that and that changes what is being funded, that is really the argument, and we are balancing it off against all the arguments about localism. Those are discussions that are going on at the moment, and we will be able to set out more about that when we introduce the legislation.

Chair: That is helpful.

Q242 Fabian Hamilton: I will leave other colleagues to deal with the issue of data-matching because I know there are other questions to come on that, but would you be using the census as one of the data-matching criteria, or is the census going to be far too out-of-date by the time we get to this process?

Mark Harper: We had this debate when we were debating the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. The problem with using census data is that it only happens once every ten years. The data that is then available at a local level takes some time for it to become available. Of course, that is population data, and what we are talking about with electoral registration is people who are eligible to vote. That is obviously predominantly British citizens, but it is also, quite complicatedly, Commonwealth citizens either who do not require leave to remain or do have leave to remain, and those things really do not map very well to population data. It is one of the reasons why the research we are doing on how many people are registered and how complete the registers are is quite detailed research, because it is not very easy just to take census data, map it to electoral registration data and come out with a good answer, because the data sets are not measuring the same thing. The answer to the question is that I don't think census data works very well in this process. Part of the data-matching that we have done, as you will know from the 22 pilots, is that we have tried different data sets in different places. Local authorities wanted different tests. Some wanted to focus more on completeness, some more on accuracy. Some have particular groups that they want to see if they can improve them or not, so we are testing a range of databases. When both we and the Electoral Commission assess those pilots, one of the things is how well each of those have done, and whether they have generated leads that have then converted into registrations at a sensible cost. That is the sort of thing that we will take into account when we make those data matches.

Q243 Fabian Hamilton: Finally, talking of cost, one of the issues in a constituency like mine is that there are quite a number of people who, although they have lived in the UK for a long time and are British citizens, do not speak English at all or have a very poor understanding of English. Will there be any attempt to use community languages to communicate with that hard-to-reach group? I am thinking particularly of many women who come over from the Indian subcontinent to marry here in the UK.

Mark Harper: My understanding at the moment—certainly I saw this in Tower Hamlets—is that in authorities where they do have communities with a range of languages, they do use those frequently to communicate with people. I think I will take your specific point away and have a look at it. In terms of how we are setting up the guidance, I will look at the extent to which that has been thought about. Perhaps I can write to the Committee and let you know. That is a very good point for us to think about.

Fabian Hamilton: That would be very helpful. Thank you very much.

Q244 Mrs Laing: Just taking that on to the next step and thinking it through, the whole issue of data-matching opens up all sorts of possibilities, I would suggest, and while I of course entirely agree with what you say, Minister, about individual responsibility and it being the individual's responsibility to register themselves to vote—I am entirely backing that—and I appreciate that what I am about to suggest has a possibility of expiration and has civil liberties issues that are quite considerable, have you considered recognising that the electoral register is used not only for electoral purposes, but for other, legitimate purposes such as credit references and so on, certainly for jury selection and for other purposes? Have you considered reversing the process of requiring the individual to come forward, as it were, and saying, "I would like to be registered to vote because I believe I have a right to vote"? What if the process was reversed and the electoral registration officer was required to use the data-matching resources available to him to compile a draft register, and then each individual would have an opportunity, while the draft register was in existence, to confirm or remove their name from that register, thus changing the presumption of when someone is eligible to vote or to be on that register, and also recognising the reality that the register is in fact more than just an electoral register? Now, I know that this might be seen as a slippery slope to the whole identity cards issue and the registration of every person in this country, but I emphasise that it would be changing the presumption as far as the duty of the electoral registration officer is concerned, but always giving the individual the choice to say, "I don't want to be on this register" or "I should not be on this register".

Mark Harper: That is a very interesting point. It does raise an enormous number of questions and some very specific ones. That is not the approach we have decided to take. It is not what we do at the moment, and I don't think that is an approach we wanted to take. Picking up your point, though, about the ease of doing that—I think I touched on that at the beginning—the reason we were trialling the data-matching was just to look at whether—the authorities at the moment, electoral registration officers, can already use data that their own authority has access to, so they can use the council tax data and housing benefit data. If they are a unitary authority, they can also use some of the information that the Education Department may have or the Social Services Department. That is not available to those in two-tier authorities. It is really expanding that to say, are there other databases that contain names of people who you could then approach to say, "Do you want to be registered?" to make it easier for people to approach them and prompt them, or nudge them, if you like, and that is the work we are undertaking.

I probably should say at this point, Mr Chairman, that the authorities that have taken part in this have done a really good job. It has been a lot of work. They have put a lot of resource into it. Given it has fallen into the period where they are also doing the canvass, they have gone above and beyond in terms of their commitment, and eight of them are now using the learnings at the earlier stage of the process and doing some further work at the tail-end of the process to hone the procedures and the processes, and we learned a great deal from the pilots. There have been genuine pilots where we have learned how you would do this in practice, and we will look at the evaluation at the end.

The other thing that picks up on your point, Mrs Laing, is also on this issue about other transactions that the individual has with the State. If you look at things like the one I forgot—I mentioned applications for driving licenses, which a lot of young people do—passports, and also the Royal Mail address redirection service, which a lot of people use when they move, that can be built into a very simple process where people, as part of that transaction, can use a tickbox to say, "I would like to be registered to vote at my new address" or "at this address". That information is then communicated to the electoral registration officer, who can use that as a method of approaching the individual. We are looking at all of those, and I think those are all the things that combine on the "making it easier" side of the equation, which means that we have an opportunity to particularly focus on some of those groups that are less likely to be registered already and make an improvement.

Q245 Sheila Gilmore: In terms of the data-matching, in relation to the legislation coming before Parliament, will there be available an evaluation of the data-matching pilots?

Mark Harper: We have been looking at how they have worked going through the process. The Electoral Commission, according to the secondary legislation, has to have those evaluations ready in March, so what we are going to have to be taking a decision on before we introduce the legislation is whether we think there is sufficient evidence available to put the powers into the legislation to roll out data-matching, if we wanted to, when we introduce the Bill, because we will have to introduce the Bill before that is ready, and then we will have that evidence available as the Bill proceeds through the House.

Q246 Sheila Gilmore: Would it not be helpful to Parliament, in looking at the legislation, to at least have some interim evaluation of these data-matching pilots? Some of the evidence we have received before this Committee was that the technical side of this had proved very difficult in some of these pilots. We are not aware, necessarily, of the outcome of this.

Mark Harper: Sure. There are two things. Clearly, one of the things we did when we took the secondary legislation through Parliament was to make sure there was a third-party evaluation of them, which is what the Electoral Commission is doing, so that you are not just taking my word for it. Clearly, when the legislation is introduced and we start the parliamentary process, I will be able to set out for Parliament what we have learned so far from the pilot, but until the Electoral Commission has finished its evaluation, you will not have that third-party evaluation, but we will certainly be able to share with you what we have learned so far. As I said, so far, we have seen that they have generated leads, if you like, on people whom the registration officers did not know about. What we don't yet know is whether they have then converted into people who have registered. Would they have registered anyway? Also, looking at the cost of doing that, we do have to bear in mind if this is the most effective way of doing it, or are there other ways of doing it? There may be different data sets that have been more successful than others, and certainly, for example, in areas where there are large numbers of students—that is one of the areas I know some witnesses have raised some concerns about—some of the data-matching pilots have used some of the data from the Higher Education Funding Council, so we can look at whether there are some potential opportunities there to make sure that students are registered at their student address and give them the opportunity to do that very easily. Those are some of the things that we will be able to look at. But we will give the maximum amount of information to Parliament as we evaluate those pilots, and then the Electoral Commission reports will be available by the beginning of March.

Q247 Sheila Gilmore: If I am understanding correctly, it might be that the legislation will be put in place together with a decision, perhaps, that data-matching is not helpful. In that case, how can we be confident that we really are going to reach these people, who are not on the register?

Mark Harper: That is why I said that there was a range of things that we were doing. Data-matching is one of them. I know this came up in some of the evidence. It is also why, for example, we have taken a power in the draft Bill to switch off the annual canvass in future, but we have kept it for the moment because we don't yet know if there are going to be other, more efficient ways of doing it. The annual canvass is very expensive, but at the moment we don't know whether it can be replaced. We have taken a power to switch it off, but we have made sure that, for that power to be exercised, you have to have a report from the Electoral Commission, basically confirming that there are alternative ways of having at least as good a system as the annual canvass, and the decision has to be taken by Parliament before that could happen. As I said, I mentioned some of the things in response to Mrs Laing's question, looking at how you can look at other transactions that individuals do with the State and look at that, and also learn from some of the things that they have done in Northern Ireland. They do not have an annual canvass now in Northern Ireland. They have a continuous registration process, and their chief electoral officer looks at some of these other ways, particularly focusing on those hard-to-reach groups, and they have had some success, so my officials have been talking to them about some of the things they are doing there. But we will keep the annual canvass until we are confident that there are other ways at least as successful at reaching those hard-to-reach groups.

Q248 Sheila Gilmore: Do you have a view, as a department, at this stage, about the relative expense of that data-matching as opposed to the canvass? The annual canvass is expensive, but data-matching also appears to have some technical issues and is potentially expensive. On one level, I think I could say within my constituency where I believe the unregistered people are, if you go round enough. I can tell on the current system, because obviously it's slightly more difficult with individual registration, I can go down the street to suburban bungalows and everybody but somebody who has just moved in recently will be on the register. I can go to city centre flats, not necessary ones where people are particularly deprived, where under half of the people in a stair of ten or twelve will have even anybody registered in the household, let alone having any concept of how many people are in that household. In that sense, is there a case for a targeted well­resourced canvass rather than elaborate data-matching?

Mark Harper: That is exactly one of the key questions, and it is one of the issues around the annual canvass. Given that we know, across the country, on average, which I recognise varies considerably, about 90% of voters do not move, you can reach a lot of people relatively cost-effectively, and where we want to focus the resource is on those people who are more difficult to reach. Part of the logic, by the way, just so you know why we had the opt-out in the proposals, is that it was purely a practical measure to enable the local authority, the electoral registration officer, to not bang their head against a brick wall trying to register somebody who really did not want to, so that they could focus their efforts on people that they did not have registered, who they might have some chance of getting on the register. It was purely a practical way of focusing resources where it matters, and that is the important thing for making sure that, as well as there is consistency in how this is done, we focus on outcomes, because one of the key lessons is that you need the electoral registration officer, who I suspect, in your consistency, has as good an idea as you where there are people not registered, you need them to be able to focus their resources, which is where they will continue to have their powers to use doorstep canvassing where they have not had the forms returned or have the opportunity to send the forms a number of times and have that suite of powers. You want them to be able to use those flexibly to focus on where they are not reaching people. A lot of people just return the forms anyway. It is focusing on those hard-to-reach people where we need to give them the flexibility.

Q249 Sheila Gilmore: Linked to resources, then, is resource allocation something where we need a standard across the country? Is there the possibility of additional resources going to areas that have particular problems? I link that to the question of ring-fencing, because many people have said, and you may disagree, that the overall allocation to local authorities means that some people have seen much larger reductions in their resource allocation generally in the last year or so. A cash-strapped local authority, which may also be one that has particular difficulties with registration, may be in a position where the temptation to perhaps not use the resource for this might suggest that ring-fencing would be helpful.

Mark Harper: That is one of the things that we are thinking about. The Chairman has set out in this case—although he and the Government are big fans of localism and giving that decision-making to local authorities—why, on a project like this where you are doing a one-off transition, ring-fencing may actually be helpful. That is absolutely one of the things we are thinking about. We are talking to electoral registration officers in local authorities and the chief executives and we are talking to others, so if the Committee considers that and makes a suggestion to us, obviously we will take your views very seriously.

Q250 Stephen Williams: Can I just come back to where Sheila left off on the ring-fencing? What I am not clear about, when these discussions are taking place within government—presumably, the localists are in DCLG—is what position you are advocating as the Minister. Are you in favour of ring-fencing? Are you arguing for a ring-fence, or are you neutral?

Mark Harper: At the moment, I am looking at the options on both sides. There are arguments on both sides, and it comes back to this point about consistency of outcome and giving local authorities the flexibility about what they spend, so I am looking at what the evidence suggests and I am listening to what electoral administrators say and whether their argument that they want ring-fencing is borne out by the evidence. I have to say, although lots of electoral administrators say that, on a steady state basis, their department is under-resourced and they don't have the resources, I am frequently not provided with any evidence of that. There is lots of anecdote, but not any evidence, so I am testing that and have done with administrators, bearing in mind their concerns and the concerns that Ms Gilmore just outlined about local authorities making sure that this is an area that is properly resourced. Those are the things that I am weighing up in terms of what we set out in the financing, whether it is or it isn't ring-fenced, and it is making sure we make the right decision for this to be successful.

Q251 Stephen Williams: Might you take a different approach for different authorities? When we were taking evidence, Stratford-on-Avon was one extreme of an area where there is very little population turnover, and I do not want to make the administrators' job sound easy, but it is clearly easier than Tower Hamlets, which is the other extreme. Might you take a view, then, that some authorities clearly do need to have that dedicated resource, and in others, perhaps localism could prevail?

Mark Harper: That is one of the areas that I think is probably quite difficult, because it then gets bound up into the complexities of the local government funding formula, which I understand is somewhat complicated, and whether it accurately devotes resources to the places that need them, and I am not going to even start getting into that argument. Those are the things we are thinking about.

The key point for us is that we want this to be properly resourced. We want electoral administrators to have the resources they need to do the write-out, to do the follow-up, and for the Electoral Commission also to be able to do its education work and public information work, so we want to get all those things right, and it is just working out the best way of doing that, and for local authorities to be able to do that in the best possible way. I have listened carefully to the views so far, and obviously I will await your report to see whether the Committee gives us a clear steer about your views, which we will take very much into account.

Q252 Stephen Williams: If I can go on to something else, Chairman, so far, we have talked about the philosophical aspects or aspect purposes of this debate. Let us give a practical example. That is the result of the carry-over from people who may, effectively, register in 2013 and who may or may not be picked up by a canvass in 2014, but will be voting in the general elections that we want in 2015.

Mark Harper: Yes.

Stephen Williams: We are concentrating on the register and whether that is complete. Actually, it is only really meaningful if people are on the register and vote thereafter. Let us take an urban area where people move around a lot. It will not surprise you to know that Bristol falls into that category. A very large number of young people, when they first arrive in the city, will live in one part of the city. Within a year, they will be living in another part of the city. Those movements are well understood and well known, but they will be in utterly different constituencies.

In 2013, just to take an example, a first-year student at the University of Bristol, 2,500 of them will live in Bristol North West; 2,450 of those will leave in October 2014 and will be in Bristol West, but they will all be registered under these provisions still in North West. They will be registered in the wrong constituency and they are very unlikely to vote. If the purpose of what we are trying to do is to make it more likely that people are, one, registered, and two, exercise their votes, there will be a big disconnect, will there not?

Mark Harper: You raise a number of issues there. Clearly, the most important thing for the purposes of people casting their vote is that they are registered somewhere. One of the issues you have—and this is the issue why lots of inaccuracy happens and it is the single biggest reason why people who are not registered are not registered—is around movement. In fact, one of the things that the annual canvass process does not do well is deal with people that move and just miss the canvass.

That, of course, was why enrolling and registration was introduced. That has not been an enormous success. If you look at the number of people who actually take advantage of that, it is not great. One of the opportunities of an individual registration process—maybe being optimistic for it to be in the introductory phase—is to try to better capture people as they move, rather than relying on doing it once a year when you have exactly the problem you suggested.

The problem you have highlighted is a problem that exists already. Our priority for the introduction of this new system is making sure that we maximise the chances of those people being registered, initially trying to improve the existing system so that we more quickly get people registered when they move. Trying to massively improve how the current system works in the first year is probably a challenge too far. What we want to do is make sure that those people who are registered do not drop off completely so that they have the opportunity to vote.

Q253 Stephen Williams: Chairman, I just want to challenge that. Mark, the problem does not exist already, because those 2,450 students will be replaced by a new 2,450 who arrive in October 2014. That problem does not arise at the moment, but there is a danger it will arise under what has been proposed.

Mark Harper: All right, sorry. I did not follow your thought. Yes, that is one of the reasons why, for example, I alluded to this in Ms Gilmore's question. Take areas, for example, where there are significant numbers of students. I know in your constituency it is about 20% of the electoral register. Whereas at the moment the hall of residence may well register a number of them themselves, one of the things we want to look at—and one of the reasons why some of the data we are doing the data-matching on was higher education data in the Pupil Database—is whether you put something specifically in place for groups like that to make sure that, when you have significant population movements, you put in place an alternative procedure so you can absolutely have them registered. One of the things they do in Northern Ireland is go to colleges and universities, approach them directly and make sure they do a good job with those. That is one of learnings that we want to take from them to make sure, in your case, you pick up all those new people who turn up and make sure you register them.

That in itself helps with the problem of those who have moved. If you are picking up people who have moved into accommodation newly, you then also pick up the fact that someone else has moved. Then you can then make the register more accurate as well. I take your point and that is one of the things that we are very much looking at for those types of areas where you have significant population movement on a regular basis.

Q254 Stephen Williams: I am glad you are looking at it, but I am disturbed by the word "whether" in that answer. It is a problem now. It will be a worse problem if something is not done about it.

Mark Harper: It is not that we are not going to do anything. It is just that data-matching may be one of the solutions. If, when we have concluded the pilots, we can see that it actually is and will be very successful, that will clearly be the approach. If that is not the approach, I think the point I wanted to leave you with is that we are not just going to go, "Oh well, we cannot do that, so we will not do anything". We will, therefore, look at alternative ways of making sure that we deal with those problems. That was the point that I wanted to leave you with.

Q255 Stephen Williams: The problem could be worse. If you imagine standing outside the University of Bristol library, which is in Bristol West, at the moment you talk to a student during an election and they say, "I am not sure whether I should vote in Bristol West or whether I should vote in Surrey South West", which would be a very typical example of University of Bristol students. There is already that confusion. Now there will be the triplicate confusion. They are registered to vote in Bristol North West. They live as a second year in Bristol West. Their home address is in Surrey or Hampshire. They have this triple choice. The danger is they do not bother at all, particularly if they are not going to be allowed to postal vote at the address they are actually registered as a student. There is a very real danger here that the department needs to seriously examine.

Mark Harper: Okay.

Stephen Williams: I am sure that will apply in Nottingham and Leeds and everywhere else.

Mark Harper: That is why it is helpful to have a range of colleagues to bring in a particular local perspective.

Q256 Andrew Griffiths: Thank you, Minister. It is interesting to be working on a piece of legislation that was in every single party's manifesto. And yet, it regularly brings up such diverse views. Can I go back to something you said earlier in relation to the canvass? All of the information we have been given to date, including the briefing note for this meeting, says that the last annual canvass will take place in 2013 and many groups—the Electoral Commission and virtually everybody that has been to see us—have raised concerns about the ending of the annual canvass. Now, from what you have said today, the annual canvass is going to continue. Could you clarify that?

Mark Harper: Sure, there are two different things. In the transitional period, so in 2014, the impression that some people have given by saying there is no annual canvass is that we are not doing anything and we are just going to hope that people register. I think the most accurate way to describe what we have done, effectively, is as a modified canvass. One of the options we had, which is the one I think the Electoral Commission is still quite keen on, was to do a full annual canvass in the normal way. You write to every head of household. You ask for the form back. Then you write again to everybody to ask them to register individually.

We considered that. We felt—and we talked very closely to electoral administrators, who would actually have to do that exercise—and they felt that the very strong view we had from the practitioners on the ground was if you did a full canvass followed by an individual write­out asking people to register individually, what you would do was thoroughly confuse everybody, because a lot of people who had sent back the household form would think they had done what they needed to do. You would not have the response from the individual form. The people who would have to do this on the ground did not think that was likely to be a very successful approach. It would also have the downside of costing a significant extra amount of money, because you would be writing to everybody twice. It would have a bill of about £50 million on it, but also not be very successful. Both of those things are significant.

Effectively, what we are going to do is a modified canvass, which focuses the resources exactly where you need to work harder. We will write to everybody individually who is on the 2013 register and ask them to register individually. Where we have any households where there is nobody on the register, they will receive the household form in the usual way. They will send it back. You will then approach each of the people on that form individually to register. Where electoral registration offices have information that people have moved, so for example from the day-to-day, already-used council tax records, housing benefit records, they will write to people directly to see who is at the household and then chase them up. They will have their full suite of tools at their disposal in order to do doorstep canvassing to follow up, and they will have a duty to follow up people who do not return the forms.

Q257 Andrew Griffiths: Will there be a doorstep canvass?

Mark Harper: Absolutely. It is going to be a modified canvass, but it is deliberately designed to allow electoral registration officers to focus on the people who are least likely to register. The thing at the moment, with the significant number of people, you send them the form and they send it back and you are done. What you want electoral registration officers to be able to do is to focus and do more with the people who do not do that. In our modified canvass or modified write­out, you are actually doing what you need to do for most people, which will be enough. Then you have a whole range of other things that you will be doing specifically for those groups where you will have most trouble. Just to be absolutely clear, the electoral registration officer will have a duty to follow up where they do not receive responses and they will still have their powers to do doorstep canvassing as well where they have not had responses.

The impression that some people have given or that has certainly been reported is that we are not doing anything. That is absolutely not the case. All that work in terms of writing out and following people up is one of the biggest chunks of cost that we are funding local authorities to do as part of this process and one of the bigger parts of the Bill.

Q258 Andrew Griffiths: Why do you think it is, Minister, that the Electoral Commission and all of the experts that have been to see us have all said that the canvass is ending and have all expressed concerns about that?

Mark Harper: In terms of doing the full canvass where you send a household form to every single household, we are not doing that and I have explained why. The Electoral Commission's approach was to write to every single household using the household canvass and then to write out to everybody who was on the household form to ask them to register individually. The evidence we had from the administrators who would have to do this is that that was likely to confuse people and not be very successful. On top of not being very successful, it was likely to have a significant bill attached to it.

We did not think that was sensible, which is why we have a modified canvass where we are going to write to absolutely everybody who is on the register. Registration officers will follow up where they do not get responses. Where they have information that people have moved, they will write out with a household form, get information back and then write back to the right people, who will register individually. Where they have nobody registered, they will send the household form in the usual way and they will still have their suite of powers to do doorstep canvassing and so forth.

It is true that it is different, but it is actually modified in order to allow them to focus on the people where they need to focus the effort. That is an approach that is supported by the electoral administrators who are going to have to do the work. It is not the approach that the Electoral Commission preferred, so that explains why they would prefer it if it was slightly different. I set out why we have adopted the approach we have and why we think it would have been more successful at registering people.

Q259 Andrew Griffiths: Fine, thank you for that. You said at the beginning that you took exception to the impression there would be a big drop-off in the number of people registering. Do you genuinely believe that there will not be a significant drop-off in the number of people on the register?

Mark Harper: There are a couple of things. The Electoral Commission was very clear and made it clear after some of the reporting that it was flagging up a concern it had. It flagged up very much a worst-case scenario. It was partly around what it felt was changing whether people felt they were obligated or not. I answered in response to the question Mr Hunt had at the beginning that we will look at whether the combination of the opt-out, which we have already said we will change, and some of the other language has that effect. There is no evidence that will happen. I said what happened in Northern Ireland. There is a challenge in this process, because we are moving from one way of doing it to another. What we are doing with the Electoral Commission and administrators is exactly to make sure it is addressing where the risks are and making sure we have put in place processes to deal with those risks.

There will of course be some people or names that come off the electoral register as part of this, which is desired, in other words: those people who are not living where the register says they are living; those people who are registered who do not actually have the right to vote; those who are not eligible to vote; those who should not be there in the first place; people who are fraudulently registered, who will probably be not massive in number. There will be, as there was in Northern Ireland, some people who come off because they should not be there in the first place, but because we know there are already people who are not registered, we are trying to do all these other things to make sure we compensate and make it easier for people to register, so we maximise the number of people that are registered who are eligible.

Q260 Andrew Griffiths: Do you have any estimates of how many people you think that is, those people who are on the register that should not be, who should legitimately come off the register?

Mark Harper: No, I said in answer to an earlier question the only data that exists at the moment, which is oft quoted, is the work that the Electoral Commission did based on data from ten years ago about the number of people who were not registered. They did a piece of work with some academic help. That is it. That is all that exists.

At the moment, we have just commissioned a piece of work, which the Electoral Commission is helping us with, which will look at both completeness and accuracy. It is some very detailed survey work, comprehensive survey work, across the country that will look at eligible voters that are not registered, and so, deal with the completeness point to see what our base line is on our existing system. It will also look at the data to see if we can make any estimate about inaccuracy, so that we can see when we do this process, if we take existing registers, how many people we would expect to disappear and how many people are already missing, so that we can make sure we do at least as well as the current system, but preferably that we do better.

It is very clear we want to measure the base line. We will then repeat that work with the same methodology after the move to individual registration so that we have a very clear sense of whether we have delivered what we intended, whether we have done a good job. Then people will be able to see whether that is, indeed, what has actually happened.

Q261 Andrew Griffiths: How many people would you say, Minister, would be an unacceptable level for the register to be reduced by? What would be a failure rate?

Mark Harper: I think it would be much better if I get the research first and have a look at where we are starting from. Our goal, as we have said, is that we want to improve the position. We want as many people registered as possible who are eligible to vote and as few people registered as possible who are not eligible to vote. We want the register to be as complete and as accurate as possible.

I want some good base line data to see where we are starting using data. The only data that exists is ten years out of date and does not look at the accuracy side. We want some good data—picking up Ms Gilmore's point—which we will be able to present to Parliament when we introduce the legislation so that we can see where we are starting from. I think that will be helpful for this debate and we can actually measure how we have done, which is one of the things that often governments of all parties are criticised for. We do things and then there is no actual idea about whether they have been successful or not. We are going to measure this, have a good base line, and then re-measure on the same basis afterwards and see how well we have done.

That will enable us the opportunity to work on areas if we think there are issues because, although there is a transition here, this is not a one-off. Just picking up the point Mr Williams alluded to, yes, we are very focused on 2015 and making sure the register is very accurate for that election, but I am also very conscious for example that other people in their evidence have referenced the subsequent boundary review. There is also a big year in 2016 with a whole set of elections scheduled for that year: Welsh Assembly; Scottish Parliament; local government. We want to make sure we are not just going, "We will worry about 2015 and then we are not worried any more". We are going to make sure we are focused and continue to work to make sure the register remains accurate.

Q262 Andrew Griffiths: You mention boundaries. A lot of your time recently was taken up with the whole issue of boundaries and the reduction in the number of MPs. It is now occupying the minds of lots of colleagues around the House. Do you have any concerns about the implications of individual voter registration on that process going forward?

Mark Harper: No, I think if we do our job properly, which is to focus on both completeness and accuracy, and we do the things we have said in terms of making it as easy as possible for people to be registered to make sure we improve the completeness from where we start, or at least be as complete as where we start, then I do not think that raises any issues at all. We think it is very important that the register is complete. We want it to be as accurate as possible. It is really the only data set that you can use for doing boundary reviews because it is the right group of people eligible voters. We want it to be as accurate as possible, both for elections and for boundary review purposes, so we are very focused on that as well. As I said, we are not just focused on 2015, but we are focused on post-2015 as well.

Q263 Andrew Griffiths: There is just one final area I would like to raise if I may, Minister, and that was raised with me by Age UK in my constituency. That is the issue of postal voting. There is some concern, firstly, in relation to the fact that there is no rollover of people's postal votes. I would be interested to know if you have any concerns about that. Secondly, in relation to the identifiers, there is some concern about the issue of a signature changing. There is some concern about the ability to get hold of or find a National Insurance number if you have not needed to use your National Insurance number for the past 25 years, perhaps since you retired. These are all fairly relevant concerns from people who take an important and a diligent part in the political process. These are the people who are likely to vote, have voted consistently for the past 50 or 60 years, and are now concerned that they might be disenfranchised by the process.

Mark Harper: On the issue around the National Insurance number, the reason why we chose that as opposed to other alternative identifiers was because its coverage is the most comprehensive across the population. One of the things we need to work on as part of the process of introducing this is to make sure that, in all of those groups you particularly mention, no one is disenfranchised. There will, of course, be an alternative approach for those people who are either unable or unwilling to disclose their National Insurance number, so there will be alternative methods. Remember, the electoral registration officers' job is to check that somebody is a real person, they exist and they are associated with the address. The National Insurance number is a good way of doing that and that is the approach we want to use for most people, but there are alternative things that people can use to demonstrate that and there will be an alternative process.

On the issue around the carry-forward and why that does not apply to absent voters, the balance we struck was this. We could have done what they did in Northern Ireland, which was we could have said, "Let us move to individual registration and let us just say you have to register individually and that is it". We thought, given what had happened in Northern Ireland, that had an unacceptable risk of having a significant number of people who are eligible to vote being dropped off the register and not able to vote, particularly at the very important general election in 2015. What we said was that we will not do that. We will have a carry-forward, but recognising that one of the areas of concern, both perception, but also reality, is that one of the bigger areas of risk is around postal voting. We will leave people on the register, but they will only be able to vote by post if they register individually. That will be part of the communication. It will be made very clear to people who have a postal vote that, if they do not take the trouble to register individually, they will still be on the register. They will still be able to vote, but they will not have the opportunity to vote by post. That will be part of the process of making sure that people know what they need to do as we go through this process.

You highlight the point. We are working with groups like Age UK to make sure we take on board their concerns. Groups like that will be a great help working with the Government and the Electoral Commission to make sure we do the communication right and focus it on different groups of people so that people are not missed out inadvertently.

Chair: Just to go back on the register and canvass, Tristram, did you have something on that specifically?

Q264 Tristram Hunt: It was just that the concerns of the Electoral Reform Society, which is really talking about a 20% gap in completeness of the register posing a risk to the 2015 general election without the household canvass, as it were the 'traditional' household canvass, of 2014. It argues that a household canvass in 2014 would close that gap by approximately 10%, so keep the electoral register as accurate numbers there as possible. Is your thinking simply that you do not regard that criticism as valid?

Mark Harper: I may be wrong, but a number of people seem to be under the impression that we are not doing anything in 2014. What we are doing is a modified canvass. One of the things the Electoral Commission wanted us to do, as I said, was to do a full canvass in the traditional way and, in the same year, not that long afterwards, write out to everybody separately. The very clear feedback we had from electoral administrators who would have to do that work was that that simply would not be a very good thing to do. We would end up risking confusing people and end up with lots of people who had sent out the household form, not responding to the individual form, because they thought they had done what they needed to do.

Q265 Tristram Hunt: Is what is driving this the cost and the electoral administrators not wanting to do the work?

Mark Harper: No, it is about whether we think it would work or not and there is already an enormous lack of understanding from people about how you register. It is a very interesting piece of data asking people questions about things that are true about registration and an awful lot of people getting the answer wrong, then asking people things that are not true and an awful lot of people believing them to be true, like I am automatically registered if I pay my council tax, which is not true.

What we do not want to do is have a process where people send back their household form, like they have done in the past—and that is all they have had to do in the past—and think that they are done. Then when they have another piece of paper come, they do not bother dealing with it, because they think they are done. There is very clear, strong evidence from the people who would actually be involved in doing the work, who have, remember, the legal duty to have a complete and accurate register, that that would not be the right thing to do.

I have already said, a big part of the funding is going to be about writing to everybody who is on the 2014 register, doing a household form to every house where there is no one on the register at all. Where the ERO, electoral registration officer, knows that people have moved with the data that they already have access to—and if we decide to roll out data matching, all those data sets as well where they know people have moved—they will send a household form to them, so actually it is pretty comprehensive. We just do not share the same analysis that the ERS appears to have given to you when it gave you its evidence.

Q266 Tristram Hunt: To follow on from Andy's point, we have talked about a worst case scenario of the 30% fall or whatever in terms of the register. If we see a marked fall in those on the register, will that then affect and modify the Government's plans for boundary reviews after the 2015 general election? Is there flexibility in your programme to say, "We have seen a marked fall in those on the register? Is this accurate and complete? Can we therefore credibly redraw parliamentary boundaries on this model, given the difficulties currently surrounding the boundary redrawing at the moment?"

Mark Harper: The first thing to remember is that there will be another canvass after the 2015 election and that will be a full household canvass to produce the register that will then be used under the current legislation to do the subsequent boundary review. You have the opportunity to do another full canvass.

Q267 Tristram Hunt: Election, May; another canvass, August; beginning of boundaries, December.

Mark Harper: Yes, as I said, we are keeping the annual canvass in place, because although it is very expensive, until we have evidence that there is a better way of doing it to be at least as good, if not better, we are not going to switch it off. As I say, that is a decision for Parliament, not for the Government. The Government will propose it. The Electoral Commission would report on it. Parliament would have to make the decision. There will be another full canvass in 2015.

As I said in answer to the question from Mr Williams, we are very focused, not just on the boundary review, but on 2016; because of having moved the devolved elections, there are some very important elections taking place across the UK. We have talked a lot in there about 2015, because a lot of people are focused on the 2015 election, but we are very conscious that after that there are both the boundary review and some very important elections in parts of the UK in 2016. We are very focused, not just on the 2014 transition, but also on the subsequent canvass and then a continuing accurate and complete register.

Q268 Tristram Hunt: My final point, Minister. Given that you pushed this through against some of our warnings about effects on identity, community and locality, are you happy with how the Boundary Commission has come up? I know you have made a substantial and effective land grab for the city of Gloucester, but for the rest of the country are you happy that locality, community and identity has been protected by your rather arbitrary, needless 5% rule?

Mark Harper: There is a full range of questions there. I have not done anything in terms of a land grab. The Boundary Commission is completely independent and would not take any notice of me. You could argue that, looking at the individuals affected by the boundary review unfavourably, senior members of the Government, difficulties created for everyone, you can see that they are equally nice or equally nasty to everybody in a very even-handed way.

I have looked at what they have proposed in general. I will not pretend I am familiar with every single constituency in the country. There are those in our party, and I am sure in yours, who are, and very impressive they are too. I am not one of them. No, I think we have given the boundary commissions a significant amount of flexibility, plus or minus 5%. There is a 10% range between 72,000 and 80,000, and that has to be balanced with those other things, and part of what is now happening, the consultation period, the public hearings, the ability for people to put in their representations, is exactly so—and I know, as you flagged up the issue, there is a concern, for example, in my neighbouring constituency, Gloucester—that people can say to the Boundary Commission, "We don't think you have got this quite right" or in some cases, "We don't think you have got it how we would have done it, and here is an alternative scenario". I know that my colleague in Gloucester is going to put forward some modifications to how he thinks the boundaries ought to be, and he will make that argument to the Boundary Commission. That now has a longer process, a three-month process now rather than a month for that process to be underway, and then they will publish their revised proposals. I think we have a very robust process that is already underway and the first public hearings have taken place already this week, so I think that is a very robust process.

Q269 Tristram Hunt: Are you going to give him his cathedral back?

Mark Harper: The important thing to remember, of course, is the cathedral is not going anywhere. We are talking about redrawing boundaries.

Q270 Chair: I think this is called leading the witness. I am not going to have it. Just before we go for playtime, I think we will keep our teeth into the really important question about the register in 2014. It will be a full household canvass and therefore there will be a shortfall because of people moving, and this is not just the ERS view, it is the Electoral Commission view. That apparently, according to the Electoral Commission, will lead to 2 to 3 million people, therefore, not being on the register who otherwise might have been, and therefore, they will not receive the application to apply for their individual registration in July 2014. I think that is the kernel of the anxiety that members of the Committee feel. To an extent, you have reassured me because of suggesting there will be a modified canvass, but does that go far enough when we are talking about potentially 2 to 3 million people coming off the canvass? Minister, you have essentially said, as Tristram pointed out, a lot of this is about the convenience of electoral registration administration. Some of it is about money, but in terms of people being able to exercise their right to vote in our democracy, surely that must supersede those considerations?

Mark Harper: Picking up those points, first of all, I don't think we agree with the Electoral Commission's analysis, and I have already set out that they would have preferred us to do it a different way, and I hope I have set out clearly our thinking about why we did not think that was appropriate. I don't think it is fair to say—which I think Mr Hunt alluded to as well—that it is about Electoral Registration Office convenience. Remember, they have a legal duty to have a complete and accurate register. They are the ones that are on the ground who have to go and do the work to get people registered. They know what works in their area and they know what is effective. Remember, this is not about resource, it is because if we decided that we would do the full household canvass and we would do a write-out following that, clearly we would have had to have funded that, so it is not a resource question for them. But if they are telling us very strongly they don't think that approach would be effective, I tend in these things to listen to the people that have to do the work on the ground and who are the ones who have to make it work, and putting a fair bit of weight on their evidence is quite important, and that is what we have done. We set out in the White Paper the modified canvass, what steps we are going to take. We think that properly focuses on the areas of risk, and clearly, if you look at that and there are particular areas where you have a concern, absolutely flag that up to us and we will look at that again before we bring the legislation before the House in the new year.

Chair: That is very helpful.

Q271 Stephen Williams: Both Andrew and Tristram have raised the issue of boundary reviews being triggered in the future, based on duff data, effectively, so there would be an unnecessary boundary review, given the tightness of the 5% quota. In the example I gave you earlier of potentially 2,500 students, that clearly would be more than enough to trigger a major boundary review in Bristol, and that would be the same elsewhere. But there is another piece of duff data within the existing system, and that is other people who are dual-registered, and most of us are probably dual-registered. I am registered in the City of Westminster as well as Bristol West, but neither authority—other than the fact I have put it on the record many times—has an ability to know that, and under the procedures that we are going to move to, will there be a provision for an electorate to disclose that I am also registered at this address? Then we can deal with this problem that no one has ever been able to solve before: whether people are voting twice or indeed whether they genuinely are living in both places, rather than have a holiday home in that place, which of course they should not be registered in, if that is the case.

Mark Harper: Well, no. This issue about dual registration is quite important and often misunderstood. You don't have the right to be registered somewhere just because you own a property or you occasionally pop to it. I know there is a particular sensitivity, for example, in Cornwall around people that have holiday homes, but if you have a holiday home and you only go there for a few weeks a year, you are not resident there and you do not have the right to be registered. I know through correspondence I have had with colleagues in Cornwall and the guidance that the ERO there has had that they are taking a more focused approach on that, and there are people who have been registered in the past who have been told that, "No, you are not resident here and you cannot be registered", so it is only people who genuinely live in more than one location.

We did consider as part of this process whether people ought to be registered in more than one place, but we felt that the current system, which is if you genuinely live in more than one place, and therefore you do potentially pay taxes to more than one thing, you should have the right. Clearly it would have had significant impact if we said people could not be registered in more than one place, because in areas where there are students, that potentially would have removed all of those students from the electoral register and they would have all perhaps been registered at the home address, which would have made some quite significant differences. They might have been good or they might have been bad, depending on what they do, but we have stuck with the existing system.

We did think about that—the issue of checking and knowing whether people are registered, again to tighten up on whether people illegally vote more than once in a general election. The only way you can really deal with that is if you effectively have a national register, and we were very clear, because of the concerns that Mrs Laing set out around data protection privacy and not wanting to set up a national database, that we are keeping local databases, and also, there is no evidence at all that there is a problem with people who vote more than once in a general election. You are of course allowed to vote in local elections in more than one location, because they are not elections to the same body. We didn't think there is a problem to solve, and the solution would end up being something, a national database, to which we don't want to go, so we have kept the existing system. We are looking at some of the detail about, for example, on your individual form, if you have moved, if you say where you have moved from so that the registration officer has the opportunity to check that you have been removed from the register that you have moved from. But if you are genuinely living in two locations, you will continue to be able to be registered in two locations.

I should just say there are obviously very severe sanctions. If anybody does vote more than once, it is a very serious criminal offence and people would be prosecuted and found guilty if the evidence suggested that was the case.

Q272 Stephen Williams: Of course there is no evidence, because you cannot get evidence if it is impossible to get the evidence. The existing system does not allow you to know who is registered twice, so it is not surprising there is no evidence. But that was not necessarily what I was worried about. It was more about the effects of—

Mark Harper: There is nothing wrong with being registered twice. It is perfectly legitimate if you do genuinely live in two locations. It is about whether you vote more than once in an election to a specific body. If someone casts a vote in more than one constituency in a general election, that is a very serious criminal offence, and if someone thought that somebody had done that, the police would have the powers to investigate it and could ultimately go to a court to uncover the relevant information about whether someone had indeed voted twice. There is no evidence that is very widespread.

Q273 Stephen Williams: That is a subsidiary point of what I was originally asking anyway. The main point was that the boundaries that will be calculated within tight parameters, which is something I support, are now rather more artificial than they would have been under the old rules because of people who are dual-registered. It is a false assumption to believe that because I am registered in the City of Westminster that the quota for that seat doesn't need to change, or in Bristol West, for that matter, for thousands of students. We are creating an artificial boundary within our current system. I am confused as to why, when you considered whether people should be dual-registered, you decided not to remove that ability.

Mark Harper: It is already the case that before the latest change in legislation, the number of people on the electoral register could reflect people who were registered in more than one location. You are right, people may work it out.

Q274 Stephen Williams: But the numbers matter more now, do they not?

Mark Harper: People may think it is more sensitive, the numbers matter, so the question we were really faced with was, should people be able to be registered in more than one location? We did consider whether that should continue, and the two most obvious ones are people that work in one location and live in another, but split their time sort of fairly evenly, and obviously the students. We could have decided that people could only be registered in one location, but we thought that the need to do that wasn't significant enough to make that decision. People can disagree with that, but that was the decision we took. It would clearly have some quite significant impacts if you suddenly said students, for example, had to register in one location, but I suspect most of them would probably end up being registered in the family home, and that will have some significant implications for the register in constituencies. We broadly stuck with the existing system, rather than have that dramatic change. Now, the Committee may have a different view, but that was the view we took.

Q275 Fabian Hamilton: That is understandable if the criteria for boundaries had remained as they historically have been instead of simply being based on numbers of registered electors plus or minus 5%. The problem is that in removing the other criteria, like man-made boundaries, natural boundaries, local authority boundaries and county boundaries, the distortion that is possible by the electoral register not being entirely accurate is going to make much more of a difference, as Stephen has said. My own example, for example, in North East Leeds, by putting half of North Yorkshire into North East Leeds, is a gross distortion and it goes against all the accepted criteria that we have had in the past. Are you not worried that individual voter registration, if some of the most dire predictions come to pass, which I know you are going to do your best to avoid and stop, will further distort those constituency boundaries when they are redrawn after 2015?

Mark Harper: There is a range of questions in there. I think the major one, which is the one you ended on, is I don't think that we will see a register that is less complete or more inaccurate than the one we have today, and that is why we are working on the areas where there is a risk. There is no point in pretending this is going to be a straightforward process. There are areas of risk. Witnesses have flagged up those up, and I have been quite open in saying where they are, and that is why we think we have addressed them, and you will obviously point out to us if you think there are gaps where you don't think our plans address them.

First of all, boundaries have always been based on the numbers. In the old legislation, they were supposed to aim at constituencies that were exactly the same size, at the quota, but obviously it was subject to all those other things and what happened was you then had a massive range. We haven't removed all of those other things at all. We have said there is now a narrower range and you have to be plus or minus 5%, but within that, you can take into account all of those other things.

Q276 Fabian Hamilton: Sorry to interrupt you. They do not seem to have taken into account those other factors though, do they? That is the problem.

Mark Harper: That is one of the arguments and that is one of the debates that is going to happen through the consultation process. I know, for example, I looked at the—and I can say this, because they have published them now—Scottish proposals, and in Scotland, for example, the Boundary Commission for Scotland in many cases has managed to stick within—where sensible, they have looked at local government boundaries, they have managed to keep quite a number of constituencies and they have looked at existing constituency boundaries. They have tried to respect all of those things and they think they have done a pretty good job. It will obviously be for others to judge whether they have done that, and there will be Members—

Q277 Fabian Hamilton: Well, I am glad they have done that in Scotland, Minister.

Mark Harper: No, but part of the point of the process of consultation is for communities and MPs and political parties and members of the public to say, "Have they properly balanced those things out?" That is obviously not for Ministers; that is for the Boundary Commission to listen to that evidence and to weigh that up when they bring forward their revised proposals. But you are right. We did tighten it up because the problem with the previous system was that the range was enormous. You had constituencies; some have had 40,000 electors in them and some of them had 90,000 electors, and that massive difference in the weight of people's votes is just not defensible, and I think all the parties agreed that constituencies should be of more equal size. We felt that plus or minus 5%, a 10% range, 8,000 voters, was the right balance. Clearly, when the legislation was going through the House, other people took a different view. Parliament in the end settled on plus or minus 5%.

Q278 Fabian Hamilton: As the only criterion that is important?

Mark Harper: No, as the most important criteria, but within that quite significant range, you can take into account all of those other factors, and indeed, when they draw up the options, they can look at those other factors when they are weighing them up.

Q279 Fabian Hamilton: There are significant errors and omissions there, but we are not here to discuss the boundaries. I appreciate that.

Can I just come back to the issue in question and ask you something about individual voter registration that refers to the very few people, I think perhaps mainly in the inner city areas, who believe that being on the electoral register in the first place helps the authorities to find them when they wish to be invisible? Do you think that individual voter registration will make it easier or harder for those who wish to avoid registration for dubious reasons?

Mark Harper: I am not sure for what dubious reasons people don't want to be—just not being on the electoral register, to forget somebody, but let me just take your assertion at face value. No, because the fact is we already know—I have said it may not be the most accurate data—that something like between 7% and 10% of people are not registered to vote anyway, so even under a system where sending back the household registration form is supposedly mandatory, the fact is that quite a lot of people, i.e. several million people, don't do that. So it would seem to me that, as you have suggested, for dubious reasons—and I presume dubious means criminal or verging towards criminal reasons—if people wanted to do that, they are clearly, I suspect, in the group of people who do not send back their form already. I am not sure that for that group of people this is going to make any difference at all, frankly. I don't think that group will be very large, but I mean, frankly—

Fabian Hamilton: No, it isn't.

Mark Harper: —if those are the sort of people who have all sorts of reasons for not being registered, not principled reasons but for all sorts of reasons, I don't think they are going to be particularly fussed about whether you do or don't have to send a form back, to be honest. I do not think it is going to make a difference. I suspect those are the people who are not registered already.

Q280 Fabian Hamilton: Yes, I think you are probably right. Any canvassing future, any ways of trying to strengthen and make the register more complete that you feel will still avoid finding these people because they don't want to be found?

Mark Harper: Yes. I mean, if people try hard enough—any system, if you look around the world, has a chunk of people who are not registered, and I suspect if someone really doesn't want to be, unless you went to absurd lengths to try and force them to, I suspect that being on the electoral register is probably the least that we have to worry about for groups like the ones you are talking about. You have to worry about what they are up to.

Q281 Sheila Gilmore: Just a couple of questions. For the postal voting, will those who want postal votes be invited to register?

Mark Harper: Yes.

Q282 Sheila Gilmore: Those people who have their postal vote carried over, certainly individual registration, I think they have their postal vote eligibility carried over automatically or do you have to do a second set of forms? Because at the moment when you register to vote, there is generally a box to tick, but then another form comes so will they still have to go through the full process? Arguably, the one group of people who are individually registered are postal voters, because they have to fill in a special form anyway, so it seems slightly perverse that the people who have already gone through a fairly individualised process will lose that postal vote potentially if they don't return the individual registration form, whereas other people will be carried over.

Mark Harper: Yes. Well, several questions there. The first one is no, you get your individual form, you are on the register already. You have your postal vote and you get written to and you send it back, you are on the register again. My understanding is that—and certainly this is our intention and I think certainly what local authorities would want—if you have got an existing postal vote registration, that would be carried over. I don't think anybody wants to kind of recreate another set of forms we have to send out. Remember though, with somebody who is registered for a postal vote, the thing we are concerned about is the potential for fraud, and the problem with someone who is on the register who shouldn't be is that if they have managed to get on to the register and they shouldn't have been, for whatever reason, it is quite easy for them to get registered to vote by post, because they can fill in a date of birth, which is not checked against anything if they put it down. It is checked against when they cast their vote, but it is not checked against anything else. They have a signature, which is also not checked against anything. It is checked against the vote, so if you manage to register fraudulently, there are no more checks on the postal vote. There is a check that the postal vote is cast by the person who is registered, but it doesn't catch people who have registered fraudulently. That is the reason for allowing people to be carried forward, so we don't inappropriately exclude people who are eligible by not letting them cast a postal vote.


Q283 Sheila Gilmore: I think all members of the Committee have been contacted by overseas electors, suggesting that the period of 15 years is too short. I wondered if the Government had any views.

Mark Harper: A couple of things. Some of the things we have not really focused on are proposals on the changes to electoral administration. Some of those will help overseas voters anyway, so lengthening, for example, the period of a general election by eight days does enable a bigger set of people to vote themselves by post, rather than have to nominate a proxy, because you have added a fairly significant extra chunk of time to the process.

On the issue about the time limit, the 15 years, that is something the Government is considering at the moment, and if we decide that we want to change that, that is obviously something that we will bring forward for decision in the House. It would have to be a legislative change. That is something the Government is considering at the moment, but we have not reached a decision.

Q284 Mrs Laing: Looking more widely at the process of the election—and indeed, I think this is a little bit last minute, we won't have time to explore all of this this morning as well as the wide range of issues we have already looked at—but looking generally at the duties and responsibilities of electoral registration officers and returning officers and the structure under which they operate, that is how much they can be advised that they have to do by the Electoral Commission, but not required, because they don't have a reporting structure, and given what happened at the close of poll at the last general election, government is consulting on several draft electoral administration provisions, but am I right in thinking that there is no consultation on what should happen at the close of poll?

Mark Harper: Right. You raise two very important issues there. I will deal with both of them, if I may, Chairman. But the first one, which is the wider structural point, which is who has responsibility and who is in charge, for elections, returning officers are independent officeholders appointed. They have a legal duty to run the elections. They are obviously usually the local authority chief executive or whatever and his team, but the office they hold as returning officer is an independent one. They have a legal duty, a whole range of legal duties to comply with. The Electoral Commission gives them guidance and monitors their performance, but is not in a management role.

One of the things that we will look at is obviously at the referendum this year, when the Chairman of the Electoral Commission was the chief counting officer, and for the referendum, she was in control and was able to issue directions. One of the things that we have said we will look at is the extent to which that was a success and what the Electoral Commission thought about it and what administrators thought about it, and various reports will come out and we will consider those and see whether that has any wider lessons for how we run elections. I mean, I think it is fair to say the Electoral Commission are quite keen for a bigger role. At the moment, that is unproven.

On your specific point about close of poll, the view the Government took, there clearly was an issue in a number of constituencies, but it was a very small number of constituencies and a relatively small number of electors, and of course anybody being deprived of their vote is important, but you also have to look at if you were to make a change, do you then set up something that has a load of unforeseen consequences? The very clear view we had was that trying to come up with a system where you somehow set up a queuing process, people who have turned up are all allowed to vote, carries with it a whole lot of other concerns and there are lots of constituencies where that would raise a whole load of questions about how you manage that, how you dealt with who was in the queue and all of those sorts of issues. So our view was given the fact also that the concerns—and I think it is the Electoral Commission's view—were largely around poor planning, poor resource management, and I know in a number of those authorities where they had issues, for example, in Manchester, I know they have taken steps to deal with the size of the—or the way they have resourced different polling districts, the assumptions they have made, and they have dealt with some of those issues.

I think that those are the proportionate steps and the Government's position at the moment is it doesn't feel that a legislative change is required to deal with that problem. I think it is fair to say one of the things the Electoral Commission will make very clear is that people are very well aware of what the rules are, so polls are open for a significant period of time each day. People are able to have a postal vote on demand. If lots of people all turn up at the last minute, there will clearly be issues. The biggest concern on that day was that some people turned up pretty early on and there had been some very poor planning and poor resourcing, and I think it won't have escaped returning officers' notice that they need to make sure that that does not happen in their area. As I said, I think the evidence is that in those areas where they had issues, the returning officers have learned from what happened and have taken steps already to make sure that those lessons don't—or that those situations don't recur in the future.

Q285 Mrs Laing: So there might not be any significant difference at the next general election except that returning officers are now warned what can happen?

Mark Harper: I think what happened will have been a salutary lesson for them, but as I said, the proposed solution that the Electoral Commission suggested around allowing anyone who had turned up at the polling station by 10.00am to be issued with a ballot paper creates in itself a whole range of other complexities around having to determine—

Mrs Laing: Where the boundaries are.

Mark Harper: —where the boundaries are, managing a queue and all of those concerns and the evidence that we got and the views we got from administrators was that raised in itself a whole load of other questions, and the danger was, given that the number of electors and the number of polling stations where there were problems were very small, the danger if you do something that is not well thought through is you might solve that one particular problem and you just create a whole load of other problems and you make the situation worse. So the Government's view was the way to solve this is to deal with the root cause, which was poor planning, poor resource allocation, and I think that was the lesson from the Electoral Commission's analysis, and I think in those areas where there were issues, those issues have been dealt with.

Q286 Mrs Laing: Thank you. Finally, coming back to where we started on the accuracy and completeness of the register, Minister, we have looked at so many aspects of it today. Can I just take you back to the significant concern that this Committee had after we took evidence from the Electoral Commission and others about the statistic that the Chairman of the Electoral Commission used, that the percentage of people registering to vote might fall as low as 60%? Having considered all of the issues which surround that and given that the Committee was rather shocked at that statistic a few weeks ago, can you just sum up for us the safeguards which you consider will be put in place which will not allow that drop to 60%?

Mark Harper: Sure. I think that worst-case scenario was predicated on saying that only those people who were intending to exercise their vote would register, and therefore drawing that assumption—and I think that was the thrust behind some of the questions that Mr Hunt asked me about did we think you had sort of changed the culture, if you like—I said we will look at some of the language in there to make sure that we make it very clear—as I have done all the way through this process—that in terms of the civic responsibility and the importance of indeed both registering and voting, the Government thinks that is very important, and we will make sure we have not inadvertently sent out any signals that that is not the case.

But secondly, in terms of the process, I think the process around the 2014 write-out is pretty robust in terms of making sure we reach everybody, those already registered, but also those who will be newly coming up to the register that year or may have moved I think is robust, and I think that is a good, solid approach, and registration officers will still have all their suite of tools in terms of doorstep canvassing, they will still have a duty to follow up people who don't send forms back and so forth, and we have already said we will deal with addressing the concerns people have got about the opt out.

Of course, I think the other thing to say is we are working very closely with the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission are represented on my board in the Cabinet Office, who are delivering this programme. We are working very closely with them. They will obviously have a key role in the public information campaign. We are working very closely with stakeholder groups, particularly those who represent some of the groups who are less likely to be registered. We are working very closely with the electoral administrators, local authority chief executives, and we have a programme that is properly funded and resourced, so all of those things together and the fact that we have published the proposals and the draft legislation for both consultation with the public, but also pre-legislative scrutiny by this Committee and by Parliament means we are keen to listen to people's concerns and we will address them where we think they have flagged up things that we either had not thought of or where perhaps they think we haven't properly addressed them.

The final thing I would say, Mr Chairman—if that is indeed the last question—is we look forward to your report. We will take your report very seriously. If there are things you think we need to look at again, please say so. We will look at those then and see whether we need to make any changes to the legislation before we bring it before the House.

Q287 Chair: Given that the Committee rightly jumped up and down in great agitation because of the lack of consultation on a couple of previous occasions, I think it is incumbent upon me to thank the Minister particularly for taking account of a number of the representations that we have made and the evidence that we have produced, not least on the tickbox, on the, "Don't bother me again" issue. We very much appreciate the response that has come from government on that. I think it is no surprise we may consider in our report to press you even harder on the 2014 canvass, but that will be for Members to decide. But I very much welcome the way in which this has been conducted, and hopefully we can continue to play a constructive part in this. This is something, as Andrew said, all parties are pretty much agreed on in principle, so it is just a matter of all of us getting together to make sure the practice is right. Mark, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Mark Harper: Thank you.

Chair: We appreciate it.

Mark Harper: Thank you for your Members' interest.

Chair: Thank you.

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