Private databases key to individual registration move
Private databases would be used to plug holes in controversial changes to voting registration, the government said last week. Ministers revealed they were ready to turn to databases held by private firms if "data-matching" by local councils - to government databases only - falls short.
Labour sharply criticised the shift to individual voter registration - with the potential for millions to drop off lists - before the results of data-matching were known.
The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which had its second reading in the Commons last week, will seek to combat fraud by scrapping the tradition of the head of a household filling in the details of all adults living in a property.
The Cabinet Office has insisted data-matching trials have suggested about two thirds of electors can be verified by checks with department for work and pensions (DWP) data. The names of people will be carried forward on to the voting register "when there is no information to suggest that they are not eligible and they simply have not registered".
But Wayne David, Labour's constitutional reform spokesman, said the evaluation of the second round of data-matching trials would not be published until early 2013. He asked: "Why are the government hell-bent on introducing this radical change at breakneck speed?" Ministers were urged to pull "back from the brink".
Julie Elliott, a Sunderland Labour MP, said only about half the people in the city could be data-matched to DWP records. She told Mr Harper: "The accuracy of Department for Work and Pensions records is a problem. As an MP, I regularly get casework relating to that inaccuracy.
"Numbers are flagged to the wrong people. People are usually made aware that their national insurance records are flagged to the wrong person only when they apply for something like a maternity benefit."
In reply, Mark Harper, the constitutional reform minister, said data-matching would avoid the problems when individual registration was implemented in Northern Ireland.
During Commons debate on the bill, he said further data-matching trials, later this year, would tap into other government departments.
And he revealed: "We have had conversations with private sector agencies. One problem is that there is some circularity in the process, because one way in which they construct their databases is by using the electoral register.
"It is therefore arguable how much information we would learn from them. However, we have had conversations with them and we will continue to do so."
To encourage registration, people refusing to do so will be issued with a "parking-style" fine by local councils, of up to £130.