Commons Gate

Constitutional Affairs and the ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees - Electoral Registration (HC 243-i)

ODPM Committee 25 Jan 2004

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Evidence given by Sam Younger, Chairman; Pamela Gordon, Commissioner, Electoral Commission; Francis Aldhouse, Deputy Information Commissioner, and Jonathan Bamford, Assistant Commissioner Information Commissioner; David Simpson, Head of Compliance and Data Protection, Conservative Party, Peter Watt, Head of the Constitutional and Legal Unit, Labour Party and Mark Pack, Internet and Communications Officer, Liberal Democrats

Q39 Mr. David Clelland: What about the poor old electoral registration officers in all of this? Have you done any research into what assistance they might require in order to ensure best coverage of the register? Do you have any recommendations on levels of reminders and checking of returns?

Ms Gordon: We would want to work through the details of any proposal that was agreed by government, very much involving the electoral registration officers. They have given us a lot of observations so far, because obviously it is their practical experience that we are depending on. We are on record as regarding the registration service historically as having been a Cinderella service of local government and they do need greater resources to carry forward some of these additional burdens that are being laid on them with individual registration, as there have been with other developments in elections. So there would be a resource implication, but it would be largely a transitional one, as would be the case in introducing any new system. The other dimension of this, which we would regard as important from the local authority point of view, from the returning officer's responsibility, would be to carry out wider local public awareness campaigns alongside what the Commission does at a national level. That is particularly relevant where there are local circumstances and particularly hard-to-reach groups in a locality. This, again, is an issue we have drawn attention to because not all returning officers or registration officers are comfortable with the idea of mounting such campaigns. We should like greater clarity as to their ability to do this.

Q40 Mr. David Clelland: These are the promotional campaigns you talked about in your report The Electoral Registration Process.

Ms Gordon: Yes.

Q41 Mr. David Clelland: So you see a role for the electoral registration officers in running these promotional campaigns.

Ms Gordon: Yes.

Q42 Mr. David Clelland: You feel they are perhaps not comfortable with this. How are going to convince them that this is a good idea?

Ms Gordon: Many of them are comfortable; many of them do a great deal and that is very welcome and no doubt has a considerable effect. Others, for a variety of reasons, feel it is outside their role and they really need some certainty that it is seen by government to clarify the legislation as part of their role, that they are entitled to do this and that they should be able to do it, irrespective of any political views that there might be among the members of their council.

Q43 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think there might be scope for introducing some sort of incentives, either sticks or carrots, for the individual to register?

Ms Gordon: This is a difficult one because many people will say that traditionally it is a citizen's duty to do what is required and obviously that has some strength. On the other hand, there have been experiments to encourage people to meet the requirements laid on them and it is an area worth looking at further as we work through the practicalities.

Q44 Mr. David Clelland: You talk about resources. If or when we move from the present system to a system of individual registration, how much is this all going to cost and who is going to pay for it?

Mr Younger: The general background to this is that we have been on record for some time saying that electoral registration services generally have been under-funded in very many areas; that is the general background. In terms of individual registration, there would be an initial transitional cost as there would be in any of these things, but in an ongoing sense, one of the things of looking at the mix of factors you would have, perhaps not having an annual canvass in the same way that we have had historically would release resources within even the current pot to enable more targeted registration campaigns. That is not to say that we would not, as I suspect many others would, say there would be value in putting more resources than are currently there into the process of making sure those who should be on the electoral register are. I do recognise that there are elements of our system which are a system which is becoming increasingly sophisticated and which do require more resources. You see, for example, not thinking for the moment about all-postal voting, that the rise of postal voting does mean that there are more resource pressures on registration officers. In the context of individual registration, if you had an individual signature, that is not only important at the point of registration but, in postal voting terms, it gives you something against which you can check the incoming postal vote. Well that needs somebody to do it, so there are resource implications there as well. I do think that is part and parcel of making sure we have a system which is fit for the kind of democracy we are in the future.


Q66 Mr. David Clelland: The Commissioner is apparently a fan of on-line and telephone registration under certain circumstances. Should a paper-based system ever become solely electronic? Could you say something to the Committee about the advantages and disadvantages of each, in data protection terms?

Mr Aldhouse: The reason why we are supporters of electronic and new technology ways of collecting information, I suppose goes back to the origins of data protections in that they were safeguards for individuals in a new technology world and we certainly do not believe that data protection is a reason why you should not adopt new technology ways of achieving these old processes. Indeed, if the safeguards are adequate, it should make it possible to adopt these new means. That, as it were, is a philosophical standpoint that yes, in the way that you put it, we are a fan of these new methods. The problems in this context of the new methods will be as much as anything to do with the fact that we are talking about individual rather than household returns and issues about the identification of the individual. I suspect that that will prove to be the most difficult issue. How do you identify individuals at a distance through electronic communication means? Some of this is dependent on other issues. If we were to go the route in this country of identity cards with chips on them, then one could contemplate a technology which would provide on-line identification. There are other ways of providing on-line authentication: the sort of systems which have been adopted by the Inland Revenue, for example.

Q67 Mr. David Clelland: I am sorry for interrupting you, but we understand all the possibilities of technology. What we are concerned about from your point of view is the data protection implications involved in this.

Mr Aldhouse: The data protection implications are that you should identify people as well as you can. It is important that you identify people well, partly to protect their identities and partly to avoid identity theft. That is probably the principal implication is this case. The other important element I am reluctant to claim as a data protection issue is the accuracy of the register. You would probably want to see that as a democratic issue rather than specifically a data protection issue.

Q68 Mr. David Clelland: For instance, what security safeguards and what checking procedures could be used in order to allow telephone registration?

Mr Aldhouse: We have not set about constructing a way of implementing a system. We could point to systems used by other people, such as, for example, those who run telephone banking. I was talking about the sort of system used by the Inland Revenue, where you have user identification and passwords. Whether these are appropriate in the particular context, particularly bearing in mind the issues I know the Committees are anxious about of disadvantaged groups, might be debatable. One could construct security measures. We have not actually set out to do that yet.

Q69 Mr. David Clelland: So despite the fact that the Commissioner and the Commission have made it clear that they are in favour of on-line and telephone registration, you do not seem to have looked very deeply into what the security implications of that might be.

Mr Aldhouse: We are, in principle, in favour. We do not think that the security issues as such are distinguishable from the identification issues. They are issues which are the subject of fairly extensive debate at the moment in technical IT circles. We would not see it as our job to construct a system.

Q70 Mr. David Clelland: What about people who are unable to register unaided and need to give information to a third party in order to register individually? What are the implications of that in data protection terms?

Mr Aldhouse: We see that as perfectly legitimate. In principle there is no data protection problem about using anyone as an agent to help you. You could construct scenarios in which the information was abused by the person to whom it was given to help, but I cannot say that we are greatly anxious about that. This is an issue which arises in many circumstances and it is perfectly acceptable from a data protection point of view to ask somebody to help you.


Q76 Mr. David Clelland: Without going into any of the complexities of the electoral law, do you have any difficulties in principle, if there is going to be a requirement on electors to give personal information such as their date of birth, their National Insurance number, addresses and signatures in order to be registered? What safeguards should exist in order to protect the rights of individual in those circumstances?

Mr Aldhouse: These safeguards that I am going to mention are based on classic data protection approaches. The first safeguard is why you want the information, what the purpose is and it is to construct an electoral register. You have a narrow purpose and that enables you to minimise the amount of information you need to construct the register. You do not obtain information because it might come in handy or because it might be convenient for some other secondary distant user of the register. The sort of information which you are talking about is potential information to help identify the individual more accurately; that might be necessary. Is it necessary to keep it on the register itself? That is another issue: it does not necessarily have to be there. I think that that would be the way we would go about suggesting safeguards, that is: narrowness of purpose, minimisation of the information and minimising the information that appears on the public register and, as a sort of corollary of that, adequate security safeguards and access rules about obtaining the remaining information.


Q78 Mr. David Clelland: If a requirement were introduced for pin numbers, signatures or photo cards, what would be the key issues that would have to be considered?

Mr Aldhouse: I am sorry, but I think I end up repeating myself because it does not necessarily matter what specific information it is. The question you would have to ask is: given the limited purpose and trying to make the purpose as narrow as possible, do we really need this information? It might be that you take a balanced view about what is necessary, what is proportionate in order to identify the individuals. You suggested a pin number system, perhaps a new system like that would be necessary. In that case, I think we would be saying: how is this information going to be stored, is there a risk of it becoming available so it permits another form of identity theft and it permits people to quote this number and people will tend to assume that the person quoting the number is indeed the person to whom it refers, as has happened with pin number systems abroad? However, it is very difficult to construct a system or a set of rules in isolation from a specific proposal for a system.

Q79 Chairman: I cannot remember my pin number from one week to the next when I use it for my credit card. How would someone really be able to remember their pin number if they only voted once a year?

Mr Aldhouse: Chairman, I am not trying to urge upon you a pin number system. I was merely trying to respond to the suggestion that this might be one way of doing things. The issues does arise about the practicalities of that and if you did have a pin number system, is that in order to assist the voting process when someone has actually got onto the register, or how would it actually relate to identifying the individuals in order for them to get onto the register? For that, you need to look at other information. Here at the moment we are faced with a difficulty, a certain circularity. One of the principal elements in identifying individuals at the moment is the electoral register. I do not think either we in the Information Commissioner's office or others have yet properly addressed how we are going to avoid that circularity.

Q80 Mr. David Clelland: That is very interesting. For an organisation which, at the outset you said, seemed fairly keen on the idea of new technology and new ways of doing things, you do not seem to have thought through very clearly what the implications of all this are in security terms.

Mr Aldhouse: I think I said that we are committed, as a general approach, to try to encourage and use the new technologies. It is extremely difficult for us to propound a specific set of security controls in the absence of a specifically designed system. We would be extremely reluctant to propound the system. We can comment on the sorts of considerations that people might bear in mind and the security ones are not actually very different from the points that I was making about identification of the individual and how you would seek to protect the information.


Q116 Mr. David Clelland: It says here that the Labour Party favours the introduction of a national register and that the Conservatives are firmly against any moves to centralise electoral registration services. Perhaps Peter Watt could tell us what the advantages of a centralised register would be and David Simpson could tell us what the disadvantages would be. Perhaps Mark Pack could give us a third way.

Mr Watt: The advantages of a national register in campaigning, or for individual voters, is that we can then move towards a multi-channel-enabled election which I know the government are in favour of, so that people are not tied to voting in one polling station which is somewhere near where they are actually registered to vote, but they could in theory vote anywhere in their constituency or even outside the constituency. Obviously once you have a national register, those sorts of things become possible in the way that, for practical purposes, they are not possible at the moment. There are also some very practical advantages for political parties. At the moment the cost of managing 600-odd different registers, which are given to us in different formats, and turning those into a campaigning tool, a process which all major political parties have to go through, is extremely high and over a year the costs seem to increase disproportionately. There are both advantages for voters, but also advantages for political parties as well.

Q117 Mr. David Clelland: So the individual voter would have a unique number or identifier which would be allocated to them and their constituency. They could vote anywhere in the country but that vote would be allocated to that particular constituency.

Mr Watt: Yes.


Q120 Mr. David Clelland: So if we do have this centrally held data, what restrictions do you think should be put on its use?

Mr Watt: The same restrictions that are put on the local registers. Political parties have access to the electoral registers for fiscal purposes, for campaigning purposes and that would continue. All other who have access would have restrictions put upon them. That would also mean you have the two registers for those who decide to opt out of the commercially available register. I do actually agree with David that although there would be a national register in that sense, there would in reality be a combination of locally produced registers, which would be produced to a common data standard. I do not think that in actual fact there would be much change.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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