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

ODPM Committee 1 Feb 2004

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

Evidence given by Nicholas Russell, Campaigns Officer, Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), Simon Wooley, National Co-ordinator, Operation Black Vote, David Sinclair, Social Inclusion Manager, Help the Aged, and Jules Mason, Head of Citizenship and Development, British Youth Council; Malcolm Dumper, Executive Director, Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA), Michael Lithgow, Scottish Assessors Association, and David Monks, Chief Executive of Huntingdonshire District Council and Chairman of SOLACE Electoral Matters Panel, SOLACE.

Q167 Mr. David Clelland: Nicholas Russell mentioned before the question of telephone registration and possible problems. Is the availability of electronic and/or telephone registration something that acts as an advantage to other groups, or are there particular access problems involved?

Mr Mason: The "Why vote? Why not" initiative found that young people wanted technology to be used to inform them about the process but not necessarily the way that they cast their vote or, equally, would be able to register.

Q168 Mr. David Clelland: I am talking about registering rather than voting.

Mr Mason: There is registering - whether they want to do it by text messaging or linked to a popular youth website, or something as a reminder appeals, but not ----

Q169 Mr. David Clelland: Why is that?

Mr Mason: Most young people, whilst they like information technology and the advantages that they bring, want to be able fully to engage and find out and discuss, rather than getting a text message and replying to this. So a reminder or a prompt to go and look here or go to search a place to find out, to register to vote, yes, but to reply to ensure you are on the electoral register, no.

Mr Wooley: Again, I suppose, I echo what Jules is saying but it misses the point. We can tweak the system however much we like, but unless we are making the political case people will not register to vote or vote.

Q170 Mr. David Clelland: So you are saying it is not a question of how easy it is?

Mr Wooley: It helps. It is tweaking it and it will not hurt, but we miss a crucial point if we tweak it any which way without making the case; without engaging communities; without demonstrating that their participation will have an effect on this place and other institutions of governance. While I welcome where we are discussing household or individual, rolling registration, voting by text or voting by IT - let us not miss the point. The biggest point why most marginalised groups are not engaging is because they do not feel they can have an effect on these institutions.

Q171 Mr. David Clelland: What about individual identifiers? Do you support the idea of having individual identifiers for electors?

Mr Wooley: For example?

Q172 Mr. David Clelland: Individual identifiers - pin numbers, or National Insurance Numbers or some other way of identifying each individual elector.

Mr Wooley: I think it would help.

Q173 Mr. David Clelland: Would it cause any particular problems?

Mr Sinclair: I think we would have some concerns based on some research which is about to be published by UCL which suggests, in terms of pin numbers, for example, that even with relatively low levels of dementia you are likely to struggle with pin numbers, and you are talking about 750,000 to one million people. Of course, that creates challenges in relation to Chip and Pin, but there are clearly some issues there.

Mr. David Clelland: Can you think of any individual identifiers that would not be a problem?

Q174 Andrew Bennett: A signature?

Mr Sinclair: The signature, of course, is the alternative, which again is not being very widely promoted. If you cannot deal with the new chip and pin the signature is an alternative, but, again, it suffers from the problem that even when you want to move everyone on to chip and pin there is a lot of incentive on the industry to promote the alternative, and what incentive will there be for government to promote exceptional services or alternative services. That would be the worry.

Mr Russell: Mencap have highlighted the problems as well which people with learning difficulties have. Really, I would maintain that something simple like your date of birth which people will remember and is reasonably secure might be a good start, but if we do, for God's sake make it as short as possible.

The Committee suspended from 3.08pm to 3.18pm for a division in the House

Chairman: Our apologies to the witnesses; we have a real difficulty this afternoon and we anticipate some further votes. Therefore, I will need to bring this part of the evidence to a close no later than 3.30, which means we will have to have some very sharp questions and answers. We have a few remaining items we want to cover.

Q175 Mr. David Clelland: Following the question we had on individual identifiers, could I just ask you simply which would be the simplest individual identifier for the group that you represent? If we are going to have individual registration we need to have some way of identifying each voter. What would be the simplest way of doing it in terms of your group?

Mr Russell: We are suggesting, as I said, date of birth.

Q176 Chairman: Would National Insurance numbers be a problem when you have got women in ethnic minority communities who have not got a number?

Mr Wooley: That might be a problem, yes.

Q177 Mr. David Clelland: Signature? Help us out here.

Mr Wooley: Signature and date of birth.


Q192 Mr. David Clelland: Mr Dumper mentioned this question of the difficulty of the annual canvass and the possibility of having some sort of audit. Are you suggesting that once you have had the canvass you have got to make the register and it should be updated by periodic order, not necessarily annually?

Mr Dumper: I think if individual registration and rolling registration was working perfectly, I do not see the need (I have to say, this is a personal view) for an annual audit. Annual audits, as I mentioned earlier, are becoming very difficult to conduct. I am not sure that we are getting anywhere near the accuracy levels that we should. As we mentioned in our evidence, local authority funding is under severe pressure; there are different practices applied to annual audits by registration officers, mainly because of the difficulty of the areas they are canvassing. Generally, I think, from the social perspective, not a lot of people like opening their doors at 6, 7 o'clock in the evening because we conduct the canvass at the wrong time of the year, when the darker evenings are coming in, which makes it extremely difficult and people are reluctant to respond to a knock on the door or, indeed, a telephone call at that time of the evening. If individual registration was robust and secure, the electorate were aware of it and knew exactly what they should be doing, I do not see the need for an annual audit; a three-yearly or four-yearly annual audit would be sufficient.

Q193 Mr. David Clelland: Once you have compiled your national register should it be possible for registration officers to fill those gaps when they learn that people in a particular household have not registered and automatically include them?

Mr Dumper: Obviously, that is a fundamental component of individual registration; the RO has the power to obtain information from any other council source - or, indeed, any other government source - that may have information about electors in that particular residence.

Q194 Mr. David Clelland: What should the deadline for registration be for any particular election?

Mr Dumper: I certainly think it is too far off at the moment. To close down an electoral register on 16 March when an election is going to happen the first week in May is not going to be helpful to the electorate.

Mr Monks: I think it could be a lot tighter. I have seen evidence and talked to people in the political parties who are worried that people register in marginal constituencies very near polling day because the opinion polls are showing - well, you know where the marginal seats are now. So you have to be able to guard against that sort of worry as well. You have, as an electoral registration officer, to be sure this is a bona fide registration; somebody actually lives in the area with specific local connections, or something like that.

Q195 Mr. David Clelland: So closer than it is now but not too close?

Mr Monks: Definitely.

Q196 Mr. David Clelland: Of course, the problem with a General Election is that you will not necessarily know until very near the election.

Mr Monks: That is correct.

Mr Dumper: I certainly think you could bring it into the month prior to the election, but nomination day is the key. You need to have regard to the day of nomination when registration should have a cut-off date.


Q207 Mr. David Clelland: In an answer to a question I put to Mr Dumper earlier, he said it would be quite legitimate for an electoral registration officer to add people on to the list once they discovered they had not registered. What would happen then in terms of the identifier, particularly if it was a signature?

Mr Dumper: I think it is a question of what information we had to request to validate that data. If you are going to obtain that data from council tax records, for example, then the applicant presumably would make some sort of declaration on his council tax so you compare that to registration. The difficulty you would have then is with other members in that household. I think what it would be, it would be a precursor to the ERO following up the information with somebody who had moved address and then making an independent inquiry to that new address.

Q208 Mr. David Clelland: What happens if someone refuses? If there was an identifier which had to be provided by the elector, what would happen if they refused to provide that?

Mr Dumper: I presume that would be accounted for in legislation. If you do not provide the information to enable you to register, the proper identifier, (a) you would not register and (b) you would be considered for prosecution, if the legislation provided for that.


Q229 Mr. David Clelland: Why is it so important to retain local control over the compilation and updating of the register? If I am moving house from one part of the country to the other, would it not be simpler to have one central registration point like the DVLA or one website you can go into rather than having to traipse down to the town hall? Is that not simpler?

Mr Dumper: I think it is a question of balance and there are arguments for and against. I think the benefit of this being conducted at local level is because of local knowledge and identity with their local authority. I think the benefits of the national register will come because it will enable, centrally, the hub to cleanse the local registers when people do move. As long as the arrangement is right whereby when a person moves the information is immediately fed into the hub to remove that person from the previous address then you are going to continue to cleanse the register and retain it at a local level.

Mr Monks: If I can just come back to that one. I think if we were starting again de novo, a blank sheet of paper, I would go with that suggestion.

Q230 Mr. David Clelland: That is what you want, is it not?

Mr Monks: That would be great if we had a system like the man on the street corner, but we are not starting from there, are we? There are people in the area that I have worked who have that affinity with the local area and they believe it is part of local citizenship. They are filling a form in which is going back to their local authority. In some of the older groups of people I meet, they still think like that. In Huntingdonshire, local councillors often go out and canvass when the forms go out to say "Have you filled that form in? Are you on the register?" because they have that local connection with the community and they know someone new has moved into the house. They know if someone has come back from university and is living with their mum and dad for a few years. I think if you went to the national system you would lose that and I think in a way that would be a shame because that is the voluntary aspect of all this, the community involvement which I see from my members, and it would be a pity to give it up.

Q231 Mr. David Clelland: There is a centralising measure in vogue. You mentioned earlier the CORE project.

Mr Dumper: Sure.

Q232 Mr. David Clelland: How is that going and what would be the advantage of that to members of your associations?

Mr Dumper: It is early stages in the project at the moment. I am on the project group of CORE. I think the benefits of CORE will do just as I outlined in response to your earlier question. It will enable us to cleanse the register. There are still issues about access to CORE: who will be given access; what the data will be used for. I think that is a key area which needs to be considered and thought through very, very carefully, so that for people supplying information through the local elector registration officer, notification is given on the national database as to exactly what that information is going to be used for and people will have access rights to that.

Q233 Mr. David Clelland: If we are going to have that central register of information which is compiled from information held locally, presumably that means localities are going to have to have common databases and common software. Are you promoting that?

Mr Dumper: That is what the project is addressing at the moment.

Mr Monks: Not necessarily common software but software which talks to each other.

Q234 Mr. David Clelland: That is compatible?

Mr Monks: Yes. You can get it in about four or five systems but the idea is that you have a common communication system. There are some authorities who have developed their own software, most have bought it from standard suppliers. You just need them to be able to talk to each other.

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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