The Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2012, SI 2012/1944 (“the Order”), made and coming into force on 17 July 2012, pursuant to Sections 35 and 36 of the Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 (“the 2009 Act”), gives effect to proposals for local Electoral Registration Officers (“EROs”) to run data matching pilot schemes.

It allows EROs in 17 areas in England, Wales and Scotland to use data sets kept by the  DWP to enable EROs to improve the accuracy and completeness of their electoral registers. It is intended that one way in which this will be done is by EROs comparing those registers against the data held by DWP to confirm existing electors who appear on those registers. Depending on the outcome of these pilot schemes, the Government intends that this process of data matching will be used by EROs throughout Great Britain to ease the transition to Individual Electoral Registration in 2014. The Order also sets the date by which the Electoral Commission must evaluate the pilot schemes.

Sections 30 to 34 of the 2009 Act make provision for the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration.

Section 35 provides for the Secretary of State  (“the SoS”) to make an order providing for schemes for the provision of information to EROs by other public authorities. The schemes are intended to support the wider work of ensuring and improving the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers as part of the overall transition to Individual Electoral Registration. The schemes will also build on and advance the work begun in 2011 to identify whether and how access to public authority data sets might assist EROs in meeting their duty under Sections 9 and 9A of the Representation of the People Act 1983, primarily by comparing electoral registers against other data sets.

Section 36 of the 2009 Act required the SoS to consult the Electoral Commission, the Information Commissioner and the public authorities holding the data sets before making the Order. It also requires the Electoral Commission to assess and report on the outcomes of the data matching pilot schemes.

The Government has made a commitment to introduce legislation, and has now introduced legislation, to speed up the implementation of Individual Electoral Registration. Current legislation allows Individual Electoral Registration to be brought into force on a voluntary basis in this Parliament and on a compulsory basis from late 2015 at the earliest.  The Government intends to amend this position so that electors will be asked to register individually from 2014 in order to modernise the electoral registration system and tackle fraud. Electors will be asked to provide identifying information which will be checked before they are added to the electoral register. The process will replace the existing system of household registration.

From June to November 2011 EROs ran 22 data matching schemes, enabled by the Electoral Registration Data Schemes Order 2011 (S.I. 2011/1466), to see if existing public authority databases could be used to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. The schemes were designed to identify individuals not on the electoral register who were entitled to be registered, as well as to show up false, duplicate and inaccurate registrations. EROs were able to review entries that appeared to be fraudulent or inaccurate, and remove them from the register following the review if appropriate. They were also able to identify eligible but unregistered individuals and invite them to apply to register.

Separate evaluations of the 2011 schemes were subsequently carried out by the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office. Both concluded that data matching might have the potential to supplement activity by EROs and assist in the transition to Individual Electoral Registration, but that further, well-constructed trials were needed in order to better evaluate that potential. Consequently, a further set of pilot schemes aimed at identifying potential electors missing from the register is being planned for late 2012 and early 2013.

In the course of the 2011 pilots an additional potential use was identified for data matching, namely as a mechanism for confirming existing electors for the purposes of Individual Electoral Registration. This would allow individuals whose details could be matched against trusted public databases to be “passported” on to the new individual electoral registration register without the need to make a new application for registration.  In the Government Response to pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on Individual Electoral Registration and amendment to Electoral Registration law (February 2012, Cm 8245) the Government announced that, subject to further testing this year, it was minded to use data matching to simplify the transition to Individual Electoral Registration for the majority of electors. The Order will enable that testing to take place during 2012.

EROs and the DWP will agree the arrangements for the transfer, storage, destruction and security of data during the schemes as required by Article 4 of the Order.

An overarching privacy impact assessment of the data schemes is Annex A of the Explanatory Memorandum for the Order. A privacy impact assessment will also be prepared for each scheme as it involves the processing of personal data of individuals.

James Goudie QC