Constitutional Affairs and the ODPM: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Committees - Electoral Registration (HC 243-iii)
ODPM Committee 8 Feb 2004
Evidence given by Rt. Hon Nick Raynsford MP, Minister for Local and Regional Government and Fire, and Mr Paul Rowsell, Director for Democracy and Local Government, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and Christopher Leslie MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs.
Q295 Mr. David Clelland: You have already indicated that your Departments are looking at the various forms of individual identifier that might be used. Could you perhaps say something about the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of identifier that you have looked at? Are you coming to a short list?
Mr Leslie: They could be quite numerous. It could be a random, key password, a pin number, something that people are more likely to recall, date of birth or a signature. A lot of the considerations about which would be best need to go in part about how the individual could easily recall that. As Members of the Committee will know, if you have to remember your pin number for your Visa or credit card, they can be varied and changing and not always easily recalled, but most people tend to remember their date of birth, for instance. On the other hand, there are considerations about how easily these extra individual identifiers could be stored in the database held by the registration officers, what level of information would be on the register and so forth and how they would keep that separate.
Q296 Mr. David Clelland: Do all these ifs and buts mean it is still very much all under examination?
Mr Leslie: Very much so.
Q297 Mr. David Clelland: The Electoral Commission have suggested that a unique registration number for each elector might be one way forward.
Mr Leslie: We already have a sort of unique reference number in terms of the polling district number and the electoral roll number, which is not something that most electors would know off the top of their head. That would probably be for the purpose of ease of administration. For instance, if there was electronic voting, the verification process between the receipt of e-mail traffic and confirmation and the individual sending that information. You might require some sort of match up of individual identification numbers and that sort of thing.
Q298 Mr. David Clelland: Nick Raynsford mentioned the signature being used and I think he said that would be the most effective.
Mr Raynsford: In respect of postal voting. If we think back, when the Electoral Commission first started making their recommendations, it was also at a time when they were recommending a roll out of all posting voting as the norm in local government elections. Things have changed. There have been concerns expressed about the safety of all postal voting. They are now working on a different model. They are also giving greater attention to the use of electronic voting opportunities where the signature will not in general be a helpful check because one of the benefits of electronic voting is people being able to vote remotely, where there would be no necessary means of using the signature as a check.
Q299 Mr. David Clelland: The question is whether that would be of use across the board, depending on what kind of voting system we have.
Mr Raynsford: The point I was trying to make is that there are particular types of security system that will be easier to use in respect of certain types of voting. One of the tasks we have is to find the best way forward without producing an unnecessary proliferation of different secure forms of security.
Q300 Mr. David Clelland: The question of pin numbers and electoral voting cards could place additional burdens on the elector in terms of having to remember the numbers and find the cards and all that sort of stuff?
Mr Raynsford: Absolutely.
Q301 Mr. David Clelland: Have you considered all of these issues?
Mr Leslie: We are considering them. You are talking to us in the middle of a policy formulation process and of course we wait with interest to see the Committee's recommendations on your own preferences on these things. We want to keep an open mind on those questions.
Q317 Mr. David Clelland: The purpose of such promotional work is for the sake of the accuracy and completeness of the register. At the moment, there is an obligation on the household to return the forms, although we have heard it is on very rare occasions that anyone is prosecuted for not returning the forms. Therefore, we have a less than accurate and complete register. If we move to a situation where we have individual registration, should that be compulsory? If so, what would be the appropriate penalties for failure to register?
Mr Leslie: We have a system at present where electoral registration officers have the power to prosecute for failing to comply with a request for information from that electoral registration officer, with a fine of up to £1,000 if found guilty of that. Prosecutions are relatively rare but nevertheless there is that requirement to comply with the request. Therefore, in some ways, you could almost describe this as a compulsory system as it is, but there is not a compulsory requirement if one moves house, for example, to instantly use a rolling register capability to update one's entry on the new register about where you are moving house to. There is a balance to be struck in terms of how strict the enforcement of that desire to comply with the request from the registration officer is. The balance is that, if an electoral registration officer spent all his or her time prosecuting individuals for non-registration, very soon that resources of that registration officer would be used up so there would not be much left available to promote proactive registration amongst the wider population. Quite naturally, they take a balanced approach.
Q318 Mr. David Clelland: I am not quite sure whether you are saying that it should be compulsory in a situation where we have individual registration, as it is now, or would the same penalties apply?
Mr Leslie: The balance that is struck at present is a good one in that there is an onus on an individual to co-operate with the electoral registration officer when that request comes to that individual for information, that individual being told that there is a penalty of up to £1,000 for failure to comply with that request reasonably. In effect, we have a fairly compulsory system as it is.
Q319 Mr. David Clelland: That is the stick. What about the carrots? Should there be incentives for people to register? We have heard about the mobile phone one. Apparently some local authorities will issue parking permits and link that with automatic registering.
Mr Leslie: I have not heard of the last one but I know that the use of the register by credit reference agencies in order to verify addresses, names of applicants for mortgages, loans, mobile telephone applications and so forth is probably one of the bigger incentives for people to go on the register. I had a constituent last week who had a new job, a teenager, who was not on the register but wanted to receive the pay cheque through the bank account process and could not open a bank account unless they were on the register. They were keen to find out as soon as possible how to get on the electoral register. It was not necessarily because of any forthcoming general election. It was more a financial imperative, but nevertheless it was an imperative that motivates people to go on the register.
Q320 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think it would be a good idea, rather than relying on the casual incentives that might be there, to introduce some sort of incentive?
Mr Leslie: Incentives tend to cost sums of money. I have heard people reporting their preference: should we have a voucher system to reward people for going on the register? We do not have limitless resources to go in that direction necessarily. What we could do though is explain more and advertise more the fact that there are benefits to being on the register, not least through the credit reference aspects.
Q321 Mr. David Clelland: People are allowed to abstain from voting. Should they be allowed to abstain from registering?
Mr Leslie: Abstention from voting is a choice that people have for whatever reason, sometimes religious and sometimes they just do not like the choice before them. I feel that the requirement for all individuals to co-operate with an electoral registration officer is universal and applies to everyone. Therefore, there should be a requirement to go on the register. Whether everybody complies with that - sadly, they do not - that is the requirement in law and that is the one that needs to be upheld.
Mr Raynsford: Can I strongly support that and say it is important that that is accompanied by safeguards for those people who believe their personal security may be put at risk, which is why the whole issue of anonymous registration is important. Also, that there should be very careful consideration as we move through with the Citizen Information Project that Chris was talking about earlier about the whole data protection implications but, subject to those issues, it seems to me absolutely right that there should be a comprehensive register.
Q322 Mr. David Clelland: They should be obliged to register but they could ask to be left off the published register?
Mr Leslie: We have had a process since 2002 where we have got two registers in parallel, an edited register and a full register. I think that has helped calm some people's minds as to whether that is in the public domain, but you might come on to that later.
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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